Western Lesson: Cue the Lope, Cut the Drama

What to do if your horse bucks, kicks, or refuses to move when you ask for the canter.

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Cueing your horse to canter (or lope, whichever term you prefer) can cause a bit of tension, especially if your horse has a history of kicking out, bucking or refusing to move forward.Young Rider Magazine Logo

How can you get a perfect canter transition each time you ask? Here’s how to make sure your horse is ready to canter and to cue for the canter in a relaxed way. Plus, learn how to handle your horse if he decides to act out instead of quickening his pace.

Western horse loping

Why Does My Horse Buck at the Canter?

If your horse is bucking or simply refuses when you cue for the canter, it’s important to rule out physical pain or discomfort before correcting the horse. Have a veterinarian check out your horse and ask a pro to check saddle fit.

Is your horse raising his head or fighting you in the transition? Ask a friend or instructor watch you to make sure that you’re not accidentally pulling on the reins at the same time you’re asking for the canter. If your horse feels a tug as soon as he takes the first big canter stride, he might get confused.

The Lope Cue

Plan ahead to make sure that you pick the perfect spot in the arena for your transition. Ask for the canter just after a turn to the long side of the arena, so you have ample space to move forward. Make your cue soft and relaxed and only use the pressure necessary to boost your horse into the canter. Take a few big breaths to help you relax and sit deeply in the saddle. Then apply these aids in order and in slow motion:

  1. Slide your outside leg back and apply pressure to your horse’s side.
  2. Lift your inside hand slightly.
  3. Push lightly forward with your seat, moving in the canter motion. At the same time, many people also like to make a kissing sound or say “canter” for a verbal cue.

Throughout the process, leave the reins loose. Continue at the canter until the horse relaxes and moves ahead without your constant pushing. Only stop when your horse is cantering well—and the decision to slow down is yours.

Troubleshooting the Canter Cue

A horse that refuses to move into the canter or a horse that bucks needs to be pushed to move forward.

Often, riders who have a problem with the canter transition stop to regroup. That pause, no matter how short, is a reward for your horse.

Only use the pressure necessary to move the horse forward. If your horse throws a “temper tantrum” (buck or kick), ignore it and calmly and confidently ask him to move forward. He must work harder, to show him that his bucking fit wasn’t the right answer.

Move your hands forward toward his ears to show him that forward is the correct direction and add leg pressure gradually until he moves on.

Once you feel your horse’s back relax, allow him to slow down to a slower canter before resting.

If your forward cues cause your horse to trot faster and faster, it’s time for greater reinforcement. Reprimanding him verbally may do the trick.

Still no canter? With an instructor’s help, you may need to learn to tap your horse with the reins or carry a crop. Keep in mind that crops aren’t meant to cause pain or to be mean.

Tapping a horse once on the shoulder to correct his disobedience is much better than continually kicking him when he won’t move on to the canter. One kind-but-firm correction may be all that’s ever needed to remind a well-trained horse that he is to move at the speed requested until another cue is given.

Remember, most horses want to be good. Praise your horse when he correctly steps into the canter and you will be a pro at your transitions in no time!


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Young Rider magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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Heidi Nyland Melocco holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University and a Master's degree in journalism from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University with a concentration in magazine and photo editing. At the latter, she was named Master's Student of the Year. Her stories and photographs are seen regularly in many equine publications, including Horse Illustrated and Young Rider. Melocco is an author of Western Horseman's Understanding Lameness, Western Horseman’s Legends 6 and 9, and Goodnight’s Guide to Great Horsemanship, and she’s a contributing photographer for the Certified Horsemanship Association's Instructor Manual, Hitch Up & Go, The Revolution in Horsemanship by Rick Lamb and Robert Miller, DVM; and Breed for Success by Rene Riley and Honi Roberts. She and her daughter are currently writing a new children's book called Pony Powers—all about what it's like to keep a pony at home. Melocco's photos have won awards from the Equine Photographer's Network and an AIM Award. Melocco holds first-prize awards from American Horse Publications (AHP) for training stories and equine photography. She has had more than 35 magazine cover photos. Melocco continues to write about and photograph horses and also works in video broadcasting. She directed and produced a popular RFD-TV show for more than 10 years. Melocco stays up to speed with social media and has grown accounts to reach and engage with hundreds of thousands of fans. She served on the Board of Directors for the Colorado Horse Council and has presented social media seminars at the PATHi and CHA International Conferences.She started riding Ponies of the Americas at age 5 at Smiley R Ranch in Hilliard, Ohio, with Janet Hedman and the W. E. Richardson family. In college, she was president and later assistant coach of the Ohio Wesleyan University Equestrian Team, coached by world-champion-earning trainer Terry Myers. Keeping active as a rider and riding instructor, Melocco began studying Brain Gym—an international program based on whole-brain and active learning. As a 4-H advisor, she used the simple movements to help horseback riding students relax and achieve their goals in the saddle. Melocco became a registered instructor with Path International, helping to combine horse knowledge and therapeutic experience with horsemanship training. Melocco has presented demos at Equine Affaire and at the Path International and National Youth Horse Council Annual Conferences. She taught at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center in Longmont, Colo. Melocco resides on her small-acreage horse property with her husband, Jared; daughter Savannah; registered AQHA gelding, Charlie; pony, Romeo; dogs Lucy and Rosie, and three orange barn kitties known as the "Porch Patrol."

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