When I was young the canter was my favorite gait while riding. Something about the rocking motion and the big stride gave me a sense of freedom. I still prefer a balanced canter above all gaits today. Yet, when I returned to riding as an adult, I was incredibly nervous to ride it.
I know I’m not alone. I have watched my daughters grow up at the barn and gain in confidence and skill on their own time. A few years ago Zoe , my timid rider, accidentally cantered when Ferrous came into the trot poles too fast and cantered away, true to his Hunter training. She clung to his back like a jockey in fear but stayed on until he rounded the corner. Since then she went back to basics and learned to handle different ponies at the walk and trot, even the difficult ones. Now, she’s saying she’s ready to move forward and learn the steps to canter.
Ashlyn is a different story. She’s always been too confident and wants to push forward before she’s ready. She’s been asking to canter for a year now and is well on her way towards that goal. Her trainer and I both agree that it is a journey and she should achieve lower, more foundational goals, before jumping ahead with excitement.
It is not youth alone that struggles with this gait. Many adult riders shy away from the canter on trail or in the arena. Why is that? Certainly, many attribute it to the speed. But I think instead, it’s all about balance.
When a horse isn’t fit, or the rider isn’t ready, there is an imbalance. Lack of strength and tone, or self-carriage result in a horse that launches into the canter or lope, and tends to speed up. Rather than a push from behind (impulsion) which is necessary for a controlled movement, instead the horse drags themselves down and forward, creating- yes that word again, imbalance. The horse is not centered and as a result the rider feels precarious, which results in them lacking confidence.
How do we create balance in the canter?
- It’s all about foundation in walk and trot. Most rehabilitation specialists or trainers will not recommend cantering until later in the horse’s development. The walk is the MOST important gait. Not only does it build tendon and ligament strength, but the slow movement allows for precision.
- Leg yields, circles, shoulder in, and extending and collecting the walk all create suppleness and build muscle tone.
- Trot poles encourage abdominal engagement and extension from the hindquarters.
- Transition work between walk (both collected and extended) and trot (collected and extended).
All these above build muscle tone, suppleness, and create balance. When your horse is able to carry themselves correctly without being held on a tight rein or with manufactured aids, then it is time to move to the canter.
*Read my book, Body Conditioning for the Horse & Rider for more information on these exercises.
Gaining Confidence In The Canter
The preparation exercises for a balanced canter can take several months to accomplish well. During that time, hopefully you will learn the nuances of your horse and gain a little more confidence. Having a goal to work toward often creates a bond, after all!
- Now that you are ready to canter together, use the transition work you’ve been doing and add in a few steps of canter on the long sides of the arena. Not only will your horse pay more attention to you, rather than checking out and just thinking “forward” but the transitional exercises will help your horse to set back on their haunches and avoid the dramatic “leap” into lope.
- Circle, circle, circle. At one end of the ring, break into canter at a 20m circle, trot down the long side, then canter the opposing end of the ring. Do this in both directions.
- A well-balanced horse will feel forward and heavy underneath your hand, but don’t be afraid! The first time Ferrous was truly carrying himself in a frame at the trot, then the canter, I initially panicked and wanted to back off. DON’T. This is how it SHOULD feel.
- Don’t push too hard too fast. Start with a few strides here and there. Ultimately you will feel more balanced and secure so that when you are ready to canter for a lengthy time in the arena or *GASP* the trails, you will know and trust your horse to be balanced and with you, not racing ahead.
*Tip: Do you have a horse that races when with others? Often the racing is a confidence issue, a fear of being left behind.
- Do groundwork regularly to build trust and connection.
- Build confidence by introducing new things and going new places regularly. Ferrous and I were doing that often until we moved barns, then got a little too comfortable. Now, anything new is scary and takes more preparation.
- Plan a relaxed ride with ONE friend who understands the situation and is willing to go at your pace and direction. Having just one other horse, especially a calm and relaxed one, will build confidence and reduce the herd mentality. As you progress, slowly introduce bigger groups. Or even, venture out alone to explore! I like to hand walk Ferrous in new areas first as his threshold is low in new situations before going out on horseback.
Remember, confidence is a journey and we all have to start somewhere. If you choose not to ride at all, not to canter, or not to push yourself and your horse- that’s your decision. However, if you are looking for a way to be bold, then I hope this helps you. Please let me know how it goes!
It’s a conditioning diary! Learn what signs of pain to look for in your horse. Incorporate stretches into your daily routine. Find how to improve muscle tone and strength in your horse and the rider. Take notes and record your progress and your horse’s progress. Horse owners, amateurs, and professionals alike will benefit from this collaborative look at building a strong foundation for the whole body.
In this beautifully photographed book, you will learn:
* About the types of muscle and why they are essential.
* How to stretch your horse without harm to improve mobility. * Exercises to build a solid foundation for your horse.
* How the skeletal system of the horse affects the biomechanics of movement.
* How the rider’s imbalance can create mirroring in the horse. * Exercises for the rider to maintain strength and balance.
* A diary to track goals for both horse and rider.
* Suggested timeline and exercises.