For new equestrians, learning how to canter a horse is a big step after getting comfortable at a walk and trot on horseback. The truth is, the canter stride is a gait unlike any other. Sneaking in between the lively trot stride and the speedy gallop resides the canter: a beautiful, rhythmic gait that showcases the full measure of a horse’s grace and power all at once.
If you have never cantered a horse before, the gait may seem intimidating at first. However, we think you’ll find that it is much easier to ride than it looks–perhaps even easier than the trot!
Quick Facts: The Canter
While the walk and gallop are four-beat gaits and the trot is a simple two-beat gait (“beats” meaning the number of times that the horse’s hooves hit the ground in each stride), the canter breaks the even numbers with three rhythmic beats. Not equally timed, the horse’s hooves strike the ground in a syncopated “ba-da-DUM” with every stride. In the saddle, the canter feels very much like a powerful rocking motion.
Considerations Before Cantering
When a horse first learns to carry a rider, his center of balance has to be developed. This is even truer at the canter, where more hind-end impulsion and self-carriage is necessary for a comfortable gait. Knowing your horse well beforehand will help determine how long he can canter before tiring, as well as the quality of canter he can offer you. However, conditioning and strength training can improve any horse’s canter stride over time.
If you have never cantered a horse before, it is best if you don’t go at it alone. Have a conversation with your trainer to see if he/she thinks you’re ready to step into this gait. If you don’t have a trainer, have an experienced friend guide you in this new experience on horseback.
Fundamentals of a Perfect Canter
A perfect canter between horse and rider nearly always takes more than one attempt, but there are several things you can do as the rider to set yourself up for success. Today, we will focus on moving from a trot to a canter, but many of these principles can still apply to cantering from the walk.
Whether you’ve cantered many times before or this is your first time trying it, these tips are designed to help you both mentally and biomechanically achieve a better canter with your horse.
Step 1: Get a Mental Picture
Everything we do in horseback riding starts in our minds. Getting a mental picture of a successful canter is crucial to executing one, not only because it helps us order the practical steps we need to follow, but also because it guides our emotions towards the best possible outcome. Horses, being incredibly intuitive, will often sense and offer the same optimism if we project it first.
So, take a moment and envision the perfect canter stride. Even if you’ve never cantered before, you have probably seen one in action. Imagine what that perfect canter feels like, what your body will do, and the connection you will experience with your horse when the canter is just right. Picture the moment when your horse breaks into a smooth canter stride, and you and your horse are totally in sync. Feel the horse’s graceful rhythm and cadence. The connection is effortless.
Step 2: Start with a Relaxed & Rhythmic Trot
The best canters come from nice trots. If your horse is sluggish or rushing, now is the time to get into a relaxed and rhythmic trot. If slow, encourage your horse with your seat and legs to just offer a little more energy. If rushing, relax your body and sink deeper into the saddle. Horses that are trotting at erratic speeds aren’t ready to ask for the canter. Get to the place where your horse’s stride is supple, predictable, and energetic.
Step 3: Get Your Hands & Legs in Place for the Canter
To prepare your riding position for the canter, start by taking a deep breath and sinking deep into your saddle and stirrups. Focus on elongating your lower body so that you feel secure. Allow your core to follow the movement of your horse’s stride.
Next, move your legs into place. The leg that will be facing the inside of the arena should be right at the girth, while your outside leg should rest just behind the girth. This will help your horse to pick up the correct lead and will support him in the canter stride.
As for your upper body, make sure you’re fully sitting up and that your elbows are supple. Maintain some contact in your reins without actively pulling on your horse’s mouth.
Step 4: Ask for the Canter
Now that you’ve shifted your position to anticipate the canter stride, it’s time to ask your horse to move into it! Simply apply pressure from your legs, and follow with your seat. Some horses will associate a certain sound with the canter (like a cluck or kiss noise), which you can make here if needed. Once your horse begins cantering, release the pressure on his sides while still following the new motion with your seat.
Step 5: Hold Yourself Up!
Once you move into the canter stride, be sure to keep your back straight and tall, your shoulders back and open, and your head up and alert. So many times when we’re nervous, we subconsciously look down or try to make our bodies smaller instead of remaining upright and confident. Focus on the position, and the feeling of confidence will follow.
Step 6 : . . . But Also Anchor Deeply
While you want your upper body to be tall and open, your lower body should feel almost as though it’s sinking lower with every stride. With each breath, relax your core and allow your seat to move with the syncopated motion of your horse.
Instead of relying heavily on the bit or your legs to regulate your horse’s speed, try to anchor the tempo of the canter with your lower leg, using the timing of the sinking of your heels as a guide to your horse to move with you faster or slower.
Step 7: Relax, Enjoy, and End on a Good Note
Achieving a beautiful canter stride with your horse is an accomplishment in itself, so relax and enjoy the moment! Soak it in, and try to keep your muscles from tensing if it doesn’t go exactly as planned. The better you keep your position in place, the more you support your horse in this bigger stride.
If your horse tries to fall back into a trot, encourage him with some pressure from your legs. If he tries to rush the canter, sink deeper into your seat, try to “block” the motion with your pelvic motion, and apply some contact to the bit.
In order to slow back down into a trot, take a deep breath and visualize a nice trot again. Sink even deeper into your seat and slow the motion down with your pelvic angle before pulling on the reins.
Maintain contact with your horse’s mouth as he tries to figure out what you’re asking of him, then apply heavier contact if he doesn’t understand the signals from your seat and core. Keep yourself upright as your horse navigates his way back to the trot. And, of course, remember to reward your horse with a pat on the neck and some sweet words!
The Most Important Tip…
Learning how to canter on a horse takes both time and practice between you and your horse. But by beginning each ride by expecting a positive outcome, you will be surprised at how quickly you progress. So don’t forget to just have fun!