Sampson has an especially humorous personality.  He like to lick the back
of the farrier's head when getting trimmed and reshod.  He likes to
rough-and-tumble with other horses in the field and to box with them while
standing on his hind legs.  That's why he's in a pasture reserved for the
"bad boys."  These horses aren't really bad, they're just a very silly,
especially rambunctious group, so we keep them together instead of with
other horses that might not be able to tolerate their antics.
Sampson is perhaps best known for his love of watermelon.  If you're
picnicking with watermelon and he's free-grazing nearby, watch out.  He'll
knock over the table, and you, to get to it.
Under saddle, Sampson has an unusual habit.  He squeals like a pig, which
is his way of complaining when you ask him to do something.  But he's very
safe and actually a bit lazy, despite his size.  You'll definitely need the
mounting block.  But remember, you can't judge a horse's temperament by
his size, and it's clear that, like Toby, Sampson is another gentle giant.
Cantering is one of the most exciting, most exhilarating, and scariest gaits to
learn.  It is a three beat gait.  It's smoother than the trot but there is a lot
more motion, and it's twice as fast.  You're going to be traveling at a
whopping 13 miles an hour or so.  But right now, you must listen to my
directions.  I say this because once you start the canter, you won't hear a
word I say.
Leave your crop behind, and begin by asking Sampson to trot. You should
be in half seat.  Keep your heels down and get Sampson going straight.  
Look ahead, right between Sampson's ears, and decide exactly where you
intend to ask him to canter.  Picking a spot will help you give Sampson a
clearer, correctly timed message.  Otherwide, Sampson is likely to stretch
into a faster trot, which creates a bumpy ride and could very well unseat
you.  Now, half halt, and then apply these aids:

Aids to the Canter

1.  Sit down.

2.  Position your inside leg at the girth.

3.  Position your outside leg behind the girth.

4.  Hold the inside rein shorter than the outside rein, but both with equal

5.  Squeeze with your outside leg.

6.  Push with your back.

7.  Give with your hands.

Use these aids exactly in sequence, and all within about one-tenth of a
Okay, let's try it this way: Hold onto the mane and kick until Sampson
canters.  (Also, be advised that "Whoa" can sound an awful lot like "Go!")
The truth of the matter is that I don't want you worrying at this point about
using the aids to the canter.  I'll return to them in lesson 9.  For now, I want
you to concentrate on controlling the horse and your position at this new,
faster gait.  Grab the mane and kick as you trot, and Sampson will pick up
the canter.
Once you get Sampson going, canter for about 10 or 15 strides, and then
come back down to the trot.  Let go of the mane and gently pull back on the
reins.  Practice over and over and over until you can smoothly enter the
canter and maintain a straight trajectory.
Eventually, you'll learn to use the proper aids to the canter, which will give
you more control over your horse, and enable you to canter with finesse
and in greater comfort.  But right now, there are other fundamentals to learn
about this gait.

Cantering Tip

If you don't pick a spot and give a clear, correctly timed message, your
horse in likely to stretch into a faster trot.  You'll have a bumpy ride and
could very well become unseated.  So plan ahead.
The Canter Seat
To understand the canter seat, you need to realize what's happening
underneath you.  As I explained before, the horse is moving in a three-beat
gait.  As a result, he's going to move your body in a very unique way.
First, work toward sitting down at the canter.  Begin by trying not to hold
onto the mane.  When you're comfortable, try to hold yourself increasingly
upright while you canter, until you're actually sitting in the saddle.  Now you
can really learn to canter.
Your body is being moved forward one hip at a time, in a twisting motion.  
It's natural to feel a need to "scrub," or slide across, the saddle in response,
but don't.  Remember that weight and its distribution has a large effect on
the horse.  You want to stay centered and avoid getting your teeth rattled.
As with the sitting trot, tension at the canter works against you.  However,
now you have to learn a different way of using your back.  Instead of
adopting a forward and backward motion, as with the sitting trot, you have to
roll your hips in time with the motion of the canter.  Collapse your spinal
column and go down with the saddle, and then straighten your back as the
saddle rises.
This is when most students want to shorten their stirrups.  They think this
will give them better balance, but instead they lose that nice low base and
center of gravity, which they really need to sit to the canter.  If you feel a
need to shorten your stirrups, you're probably trying to stand up in them.  
This is incorrect.  So resist the temptation and refocus on maintaining that
correct balanced seat.

What to do horse trots faster instead of cantering.
This usually occurs because your aids were ill timed or because you didn't
have enough contained energy when giving the aids to initiate the canter.
On timing: The most important thing to do is remember the sequence of the
aids.  Then always pick a specific spot where you'll initiate the canter.  This
is very, very important.  But don't focus on the spot.  Instead, just pick one
and then look at where you're going.
Contained energy means the horse is between your legs and your hands.  
Remember this simple test?  If you ever cease using your hands and they
go loose, the horse should immediately and minutely go forward (faster),
and should you ever cease using your legs, the horse should immediately
and minutely slow down.  At all times when you're school riding (but not
necessarily when you're trail riding), the horse should be balanced between
your legs and hands.

What to do if...the horse canters too fast.
You may be gripping with your legs to hold yourself in the saddle.  If you
close your legs, the horse goes faster, so don't start that boulder rolling.  
You must ride on balance.  Don't grip.
An outside influence, such as cantering toward the barn or toward other
horses, can also cause your horse to speed up.  Change this by cantering
away from such influences.

What to do if...the bounce is uncontrollable and you can't sit down.
You're probably tense and 180 degrees out of sync with the horse.  You're
going down as he's coming up.  First, relax.  This is supposed to be fun.
Observing more experienced riders can prove invaluable.  You will naturally
emulate their motions.  Consider having yourself videotaped so you can see
what you're doing wrong.  Sit down and talk to your instructor.  If you just
aren't getting the hang of it, maybe now is the time for that private lesson or

What to do if...the horse runs away in the ring.
Usually the horse isn't actually running away, you're just having trouble
stopping him.  The first thing you must do is listen, even though this is really
hard to do, especially if you're panicked.  But listen.  Your instructor will be
telling you what to do.
Get your horse turned and circle him toward your instructor.  Keep reducing
the size of the circle until the instructor is in the center.  At that point the
horse will stop at the instructor or the instructor can stop the horse for you,
or at least give you directions.

Canter Leads
As you advance your riding, you'll be asked to make sure your horse picks
up the right lead.  In other words, when Sampson canters on right rein, or
clockwise, he leads the canter with his right front leg -- it goes forward
slightly more than the other front leg -- and when he canters on left rein, he
leads with his left.  This helps his balance.
At this stage of cantering, however, I do not work on leads.  It's just too
much for you to absorb while you're still trying to find your canter seat.  But
this is something you need to be aware of and that you'll learn soon.

Building Energy
Cantering a calm horse -- the kind you should be mounted on for these
lessons -- is somewhat like burning rubber at a stoplight.
Just in case you didn't do this in high school, here's how: You put the car in
neutral, rev the engine, wait for the green light, at which point you slip the
transmission into drive and jam the gas pedal down as far as it will go.
How does this apply to cantering?  Just before you canter, you have to rev
the horse's engine.  That doesn't mean you'll go faster, but that the
contained energy will increase.  The horse should be struggling to go faster,
but you're containing that energy by restraining him.  When you reach the
point that you picked out to start the canter, you put him into drive.  That is,
you use your legs, push with your back, and give with your hands.

You're on track if you can:

  •   Control the horse and keep your half seat position
as he picks up the canter.

  •   Maintain the half seat position comfortably for a full
lap around the ring.

  •   Sit through a few strides of the canter without gripping
or trying to stand in your stirrups.
Woodland Horse Center
16301 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20905
301-421-9156          fax: 301-421-9049


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