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Learning to Ride the Canter: Common Obstacles

By: Galadriel Billington

10:30AM Apr 8, 2004


As you learn to canter, you may encounter one of the common obstacles:

  • Bouncing
  • Speeding Up
  • Feeling out of Control
  • Breaking into Trot


Let's look at the usual reasons for these, and what to do about them.

  • Bouncing
    Riding the canter is like riding a rocking horse, or an ocean wave; first the hind end comes up, then the front end. It's when the hind end comes up that most people bounce up out of the saddle, and makes them want to lean forward. Makes sense, right? After all, you post the trot; you let the horse's back rising push you out of the saddle to rise, then seat yourself gently, then rise to post again.

    You don't want to "post" to the canter! The trot is a clear two-beat gait, and is very bouncy. You can "up down up down" with the trot, and stay in rhythm with the horse. The canter is a three-beat gait; this means that as the horse moves all four legs, it only has three footfalls. If you tried to "post" to the canter you would soon be out of rhythm with the horse, and both of you would be unbalanced.

    Ideally, you would keep your legs, seat, and torso in place, and simply follow the movement of the canter with your back. I call it "belly dancing to the canter." You will end up flexing your lower back forwards (pushing out your stomach) as the horse's back comes up, then flexing your back in a backwards arc (sucking in your stomach) to sit the downwards "wave." This does take practice, so don't be worried if it takes a few lessons to start to feel it.

    (This also takes lower back strength; if you are finding it difficult, you may wish to try some back exercises.)

  • Speeding Up, Feeling out of Control
    You also don't want to lean forward. It seems natural, as the horse pushes you forward; also, when people get tense, they have a tendency to want to hunch over. This hunching, leaning forward with rounded shoulders, I call the Fatal Fetal position:
    head hip and heal in alignment
    Desired head-hip-heel line:
    Straight line through head to hip to heel,
    shoulders straight ("shoulders back").
    fatal fetal position
    "Fatal Fetal" position:
    Head and heel much too far forward of hip,
    shoulders rounded, hunched.
    As you lean forward with your upper body, you bring your legs forward; you've lost your basic seat. Often the balance soon follows, and you feel as if you're out of control.

    If you are hunching as you lean forward (often the case) then you have also made your back stiff. Rounding your shoulders keeps you from being able to flex your lower back. You can no longer absorb the movement of the canter, and you will start to bounce again.

    Additionally, when you lean forward so, you move your weight forward. This tells the horse that you would like to go FASTER. The horse obliges by speeding up his canter. If you get tense and grab him with your calves, you are asking him to go faster still. Usually, at that point, faster is the last thing you want.

    Since most people tend to want to lean forward, you may have to deliberately "lean back" until you learn to sit upright. It helps to have a coach on the ground, who can tell you when you are leaning (forwards or back). If you are practicing outside of lessons, I recommend that you try to find someone who can watch and tell you when your torso is vertical, and when it's not. After practice you will learn the right "feel" for yourself. And of course, try to stay relaxed :) as hard as it is.

    If your tendency is to accidentally encourage the horse to go faster, then I recommend lunge lessons until you start to feel more in control. That way, an instructor can control the horse's direction and speed; you only have to worry about your own seat. You don't have to worry about the horse taking off with you. Try to stay safe :)

  • Slowing Down: Breaking to the Trot
    As I mentioned above, sometimes when they feel unbalanced, people will grip with their legs. If you grip with your calves, you encourage the horse to move forward. If you grip with your knees, however, you are actually asking the horse to slow down. You can try this at a walk: keeping your rein contact the same, squeeze all the muscles from your waist to your knees. Almost all horses, whether trained for it or no, will respond by slowing.

    In addition, gripping with the knees can cause you to lose your stirrups. When you grip with the knees, it often causes your calf and heel to come up. This takes your feet out of the stirrups.

    So if you can't grab the horse with your calves or your knees, what can you do? Well, you do what you did at the walk and at the trot: you let your leg lie softly against the horse's side. It's there in case you need to give a leg aid, it's not flapping around loose, and it's not gripping and grabbing. If you can keep yourself moving with the horse, you shouldn't need to "grab" to stay on. If you're still not sure about how that works, see Point your Toes In for more about what to do with your legs.

    If you don't feel comfortable "letting go" with your legs, you may want to have some lessons on a lunge line. An instructor can control the horse's direction and speed, and you just concentrate on your own seat. You could also practice only several canter steps at a time; usually the grip gets worse as you go along (especially if you lose your balance more, as you go along). If you break from canter after only a few strides, you can focus on trying to ride properly for a few strides and then stopping. You can feel more relaxed and calm, you can give it your full concentration, and with that combination you will probably be able to "belly dance" a little better.

    If you feel entirely uncertain about this whole canter thing, but you still want to give it a shot, you could try practicing the Emergency Dismount a few times. Knowing that you have a way to swing off the horse if it gets to be too much may help you to relax--and paradoxically, your relaxation will probably make the horse a little slower. In any case, your relaxation will allow you to concentrate better.

    Any time you learn something new, you have to coordinate your new knowledge with your old knowledge. In riding, it can take hours of practice to learn to ride a new gait, AND keep your balance, AND keep your seat, not to mention keeping your hands still and using your rein/leg aids to "steer." It's perfectly all right not to get things exactly the first time. People who have been riding for decades sometimes still have not mastered the canter.

    So spend your riding time HAVING FUN :) Yes, try to get things right, but give yourself some credit; riding is for fun, and you practice in order to get better--you don't start out knowing it all beforehand.
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2004 Galadriel Billington. All rights reserved.