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Why do horses buck when asked to canter?

Horses bucking, also called broncing, when asked to transition from a trot to a canter is a relatively common occurrence, especially among young or green horses. Bucking is an evasive behavior horses display when they are anxious, fearful, excited, or simply testing their rider. There are several potential reasons why a horse may buck in canter departs, which we’ll explore in this article.

The horse is anxious or fearful

One of the most common reasons horses buck into the canter is due to anxiety or fear. The transition from trot to canter requires the horse to engage their hindquarters and lift their back. For an inexperienced or anxious horse, this extra collection and engagement can feel scary or uncomfortable. If the rider also becomes tense in anticipation of the upward transition, the horse can feed off that anxiety. They may buck as an evasive reaction or to relieve tension.

Young horses, especially those just being introduced to canter work, may buck simply because they find the faster and more collected gait intimidating. It feels unfamiliar and causes anxiety. Tension or an unbalanced rider can exacerbate this anxiety. With time and positive training, the young horse will gain confidence and be less likely to buck into the canter.

The horse is testing the rider

Some horses, especially willful ones, may buck into the canter as a test of their rider. Horses are incredibly intelligent animals and often test their handlers to see what they can get away with. A horse may buck to check if the rider will stay centered and balanced. If the rider falls off or gets scared, the horse realizes he can use bucking to intimidate his rider.

Consistent training and firm but fair discipline is needed when riding a willful horse. If the rider stays centered and calmly but firmly corrects the horse each time he balks or bucks, the horse will learn that bucking and evasions will not be tolerated. He will be more likely to transition calmly after realizing he cannot unseat his rider with such tricks.

Lack of conditioning and strength

Asking an unfit or “out of shape” horse to engage their hind end and lift their back during a canter transition can be very difficult for them. If the horse is not properly conditioned with adequate fitness and strength training, the extra collection required to strike off into the canter may cause soreness or pain, provoking a buck.

Building up a horse’s topline, hindquarters, abdominal and back muscles through proper conditioning work will help give them the strength to collect and canter smoothly. Ground poles, cavaletti work, and hills are all great ways to build muscle and prevent bucking due to lack of conditioning.

Poor saddle fit

An ill-fitting saddle can also cause a horse to buck into the canter. If the saddle slides, pinches, or puts pressure on the horse’s shoulder or spine when they engage the hind end, the horse may buck to escape the pain or discomfort.

Ensuring your saddle is professionally fitted to your horse and does not interfere with shoulder or spinal movement is key to avoiding bucking. An equine chiropractor or massage therapist can help confirm if back soreness due to poor saddle fit is causing the evasive behavior.

Rider is unbalanced

An unbalanced rider can exacerbate many of the issues that cause a horse to buck in the canter depart. If the rider braces, leans forward, or sits “behind the motion” it makes it more difficult for the horse to shift their weight back and lift through their shoulders and chest. The rider’s seat ends up bouncing on the horse’s back, irritating them and potentially throwing them off balance, resulting in a buck.

Staying centered, lifting your chest, keeping elbows close to your sides, and staying in sync with your horse’s motion will result in smoother canter transitions. Don’t lean forward or “perch” in the saddle. Sit deep and let your hips move fluidly with the horse. Keeping your weight off their back will help them lift through the shoulders for a clean depart.

Health issues causing back pain

Sometimes a horse’s bucking at canter departs is due to an underlying physical health issue, often related to the back or hindquarters. Kissing spines, arthritis, sacroiliac joint inflammation, pinched nerves, and other back problems can make collection painful. The horse may buck to avoid the pain they feel when rounding their back and engaging the hind end.

Chiropractic work, massage therapy, veterinarian prescribed joint supplements, and rest can help resolve these issues. Make sure the saddle does not put pressure on sore spots. Addressing the physical pain will help the undesirable behavior resolve.

How to prevent bucking into the canter

There are several training and riding techniques that can help minimize or eliminate your horse bucking during upward canter transitions:

  • Build strength and fitness with ground poles, cavaletti, or hill work
  • Have your vet or chiropractor check for back or hind end pain
  • Make sure your saddle is properly fitted
  • Ask for the canter from a halt or walk, instead of from trot
  • Try lifting your horse’s back before asking for the depart
  • Engage the hindquarters before asking for the transition
  • Sit deeply, relax your hips, and lean slightly back
  • Look up, lift your chest, keep elbows at your sides
  • Remain calm and confident; tension is contagious!

Correcting the bucking

When your horse does buck into the canter, here are some tips on how to respond:

  • Sit deep, lean slightly back, and keep your weight off their mouth
  • Stay calm and centered; don’t tense up or grab the reins
  • Don’t allow your horse to continue forward in the buck; bring them to a stop or circle
  • Ask them to disengage or flex their head and neck laterally to get them straight
  • Make them stand quietly for a few seconds before asking again calmly
  • If the behavior persists, consult a professional trainer


Bucking during canter departs is a common but correctable behavior. With proper training, strength building, and consistency from the rider, the horse will learn to transition smoothly into canter. Ensuring the saddle fits, addressing any pain issues, starting from a halt, and staying centered during transitions will help minimize bucking over time.

Staying firm yet fair when correcting the bucking, and not allowing the horse to evade going forward, will communicate that bucking won’t be tolerated. With repetition, clarity, and confidence from the rider, the horse will abandon this undesirable behavior and begin relaxing into a smooth collected canter.

Cause Solution
Anxiety or excitement Remain calm, train confidence
Testing the rider Be firm and consistent
Poor conditioning Strengthen topline and hindquarters
Ill-fitting saddle Have saddle properly fitted
Rider imbalance Sit deep, lean slightly back
Back pain Address health issues causing pain

Key Takeaways

  • Young or anxious horses may buck from fear of cantering
  • Some horses buck to test their rider
  • Lack of strength and fitness can make collection painful
  • Correct saddle fit is essential
  • Rider should stay centered and avoid leaning forward
  • Underlying back pain should be addressed
  • Building topline strength helps
  • Stay calm but firm when correcting bucking

With training, strength, and consistency, your horse can learn to pick up the canter smoothly without evasions. Stay centered, address any pain issues, and take the time to build proper musculature and fitness. With repetition, your cues will become clear and your horse will respond calmly rather than bucking.

Riding should be a peaceful, enjoyable experience for both horse and rider. Paying attention to your horse’s needs, communicating clearly, and setting fair boundaries will build a strong relationship built on trust and understanding. You’ll both come to look forward to a nice relaxed canter across the countryside.