“I love riding, but admit to being a bit of a nervous nellie when hacking out. However we get on with it and have fun, especially when out with other people. The one big problem is every time we go into canter, my horse BUCKS!! and that really scares me — is there anything I can do about this as I think if I could stop him bucking I could get to really enjoy my riding. even the thought of going into canter makes me tense up now!”
This is a good question for exploring some of the things we will all recognise about confidence – and one of those is that when we lose confidence, we get tense – which then makes our horse tense and less comfy to ride – which makes us less confident….which makes us more tense….
And a negative spiral begins…
Once you are in this spiral, it is very hard to fix until – as you have done – you become AWARE of it – so it is really good that you recognise what is happening.
Let’s go back to the beginning: your horse was bucking as you went into canter…
If we think about why a horse bucks – generally it is because, in his view, he can’t go forwards.
Once you understand this underlying principle, you can start asking what it is that is, in your horse’s opinion, stopping him from going forwards.
This could be something physical eg
– A sore back, stiff back or stiff muscles – get your horse checked out….
– Feeling unbalanced (often happens with young or green horses) – more ground work to develop the balance before riding them is a good idea
– You are holding the reins too tight – ie asking him to go forward with your legs but at the same time holding him back with the reins – there is a fin eline here as you may want to have some contact to help him balance, but make sure your contact opens up a bit when you invite him to go into canter…
Or it could be something mental eg
– He thinks the arena is too small for him to canter – my horse does this in small arenas and tells me she is SURE it is too small to canter. We do some work online with her cantering and, once she is sure she can do it – she will canter without bucking when ridden.
– He doesn’t understand what you are asking
– He understands what you are asking but thinks you are asking far too strongly and is registering his objection to that – if you are asking too hard it puts him off balance, physically or mentally and he can’t sort himself out properly with your aids distracting him (this is why with young horses we put a verbal cue for canter when working online, then we can just repeat that cue when riding without any physical change in our body so we know we are not getting in our horse’s way..later we add the other aids
Or it could be something emotional eg
– Going up a gait to canter gets him excited – which makes many horses “shorten up” and not go forwards – effectively they are blocking themselves form going forwards because of their excitement…doing some approach and retreat going up into canter and coming down again before the excitement escalates can help with this – of course, doing it online first makes it even safer
Interestingly most of these are things that only the human can sort out.
I once had a horse who almost always gave huge bucks when going into canter – not pleasant. And we decided she had almost all of the above issues!
First we did a LOT of online work teaching her to balance herself in walk and trot using some exercises that asked her to lift her forehand and step under with her inside hind leg when we slightly lifted our line. Once she had this at walk and trot – which also by the way strengthened her muscles nicely on that stepping under movement – we asked her to circle on the longer line, moved her up to canter and then invited her to lift her forehand and step slightly under with the inside hind by lifting the line slightly – when she responded to this, we stopped and told her how great she was.
Gradually we lengthened the time she could canter in this balanced position….we mixed this with a lot of time where she could trot and stretch herself out at her choice without interference from us, as this takes a lot of effort when the horse is building the muscles to do it…
Once she was able to canter a lap in this balanced way, and recognised that lifting the rein meant step under with the inside hind, we made sure we had a verbal cue for the trot canter transition –we used a “smooch” or kissing sound, rewarding her when she struck off into canter in a balanced way on that cue.
Then we found a really large arena…hopped on and did ridden walk and trot, lifting the rein and seeing if she transferred the stepping slightly under with the hind leg to when we were on her back – she did. For a few sessions we stayed at walk and trot..
Then, one day when she was calm and relaxed, we trotted down a long side of the arena and smooched – she moved into a canter, I felt her going to buck, so I lifted the inside rein and she stepped slightly under, put her weight on her hind quarters and balanced herself – I stopped and told her how great she was
This whole process took about 10 sessions – and was worth the time as she went from a horse who would buck her rider off when asked to canter, to a horse with lovely soft canter transitions and a soft balanced canter.
So there ARE things we can do to support a horse with the physical, mental and emotional aspects of cantering.
Now what about the human….
First, getting so used to the canter that we don’t tense up is important – for that lunge lessons, seat lessons, riding another horse – all these things build our body memory for canter.
SEEING someone else canter the horse without bucking – that REALLY helps.
Then, doing your first canter on your horse with someone there to remind you to breathe and relax…
One more thing – -remember how with the horse, we taught the horse at walk and trot first, then only did one stride of canter first before building up to more? Well we need to do the same with the human too – take as much care of yourself as you do of your horse and you will soon be cantering without that awful tension…
yours in confidence,