Learning to canter: a guide for beginners

By Julie Harding on |

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Learn to canter
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Once you have mastered a correct seat and then walking and trotting on horseback, the next step is obviously the canter. The experts —star dressage riders, eventers and show jumpers, for example — make it look so easy, harmoniously in tune with their horse as he executes this three-time pace.

If you watch a horse cantering, you will see how he pushes himself forward with one hind leg, the right for example, while the other three are off the ground. During the second beat, his left hind and right front foot land together and then, in the third beat, his left front hits the ground as his right hind comes up. Finally, his left hind and right front foot rise off the ground, leaving the left front foot on the floor before there is a brief moment of suspension — all four feet in the air.

But just how easy is it to ride this complicated sounding pace?

If anything, it is a lot easier than trying to master the rising trot, but if you are a nervous beginner, the sudden feeling of power and speed which the canter will give you can be unnerving and will take a bit of getting used to. Don’t be put off in the early stages, though. Once mastered, the canter is an exhilarating pace that is guaranteed to give you a buzz.

Let’s start cantering

You should ask the horse to canter from sitting rather than rising trot, and squeeze gently with your legs. As he moves off into canter, sit tall — think of an imaginary line pulling you up through your head — and try to engage your core to provide some stability to your middle. Don’t lean too far forward as you ask the horse to up the pace or you will both be off balance. Don’t lean too far back either, or you will find yourself left behind by the movement. Your shoulders should stay in line with your hips and your heels in the classic position.

Although, as a complete beginner, you shouldn’t worry too much about which leg your horse is using as a lead, it is useful to understand the technique as you progress. Therefore, if you are learning in a school and your horse is about to canter on a left circle, leading with his left foreleg, you should keep your own left leg on the girth, and your right (outside) leg behind it. This should be the leg you use to nudge or kick him forward. Open your left hand to encourage him to bend, but keep a good contact with the right.

Improve your canter position

As the horse canters, try not to bounce around in the saddle too much — thus making things particularly uncomfortable for both of you. Also be careful not to exaggerate the movement by rocking backwards and forwards. Instead sit deep into the saddle and ensure that there is some ‘give’ in your hips, so that they move forwards and backwards gently in harmony with the horse’s movement.

As a beginner, it’s very easy to lose your stirrups in canter. This can happen because it’s often a natural reaction to tense and consequently shorten your leg to grip. Ensure that you have weight down in your stirrups, use your ankles as shock absorbers and your feet will stay firmly in place.

As in walk and trot, keep your hands soft so that you can follow the movement, but if you wish to stop the horse, add some resistance, thus blocking the forward movement, sit deeper into the saddle, close your legs against the horse’s sides and one that is well schooled will slow to a trot for you.

Ideally your horse should be equipped with a neck strap while you are learning to canter. If you feel insecure in the saddle — and many beginners do, so you won’t be alone — don’t be afraid to hold on to the strap or a piece of mane, especially if this stops you jabbing the horse in the mouth, which should be avoided at all costs.

Persevere with the canter movement. Like the trot it may take time, but the rewards and the fun factor will be unending.

Image: Cantering mare by Five Furlongs via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

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