Justin is regal and gorgeous. He knows it, too, striking a pose as if to say,
"Just look at how great I am. I'm above all the ordinary school horses in this
field." He prefers Red Delicious apples and will turn up his nose at a sour
Granny Smith any day of the week. He even rolls in mud elegantly. Justin
has one little problem. He overreaches, that is, his back feet hit his front
heels, so he has to wear bell boots to protect his front feet.
Justin isn't a full-blooded Morgan. He's a mutt. That's just as well, because
many Morgans can be a bit more than a beginning rider can handle.
Whatever other breed Justin has in him has made him a good, well-rounded
Justin's also very smart. We're talking brilliant. He waits for you to give him
the aids, and they'd better be clear directions. He wants you to be the
leader and will test you to see if you can meet his standards. Think ahead
with this horse. If you panic and grip, Justin won't stop, he'll move on and
Now that you've perfected getting into the canter with your horse on the
correct lead, you have to figure out what your body is doing and how to
control it. Remember, you're riding on balance, not gripping. If you grip,
you won't be able to do any of the things I'm now going to describe to you.
When you initially start to canter, your seat will slide back and forth on the
saddle, sometimes generating enough friction to toast your buns. This
won't happen if you keep your seat bones in place, in the saddle, while
following Justin's motion. You accomplish this by collapsing and
straightening your spinal column, particularly from the bottom of the rib cage
to the bottom of the seat bones. When the saddle drops, collapse; when
the saddle comes up, straighten.
This resembles rolling your hips at the sitting trot, but with more of a twisting
action. On a turn, your outside hip will go farther ahead than the inside hip.
At all times, keep your body relaxed.
Perfecting your canter seat will take you fully five hours of practice at the
canter. If you have a chance to practice alone, be careful not to overdo it.
Don't unwittingly abuse your horse. You may want to learn so badly that
you keep cantering and cantering, which can fatigue a horse. Show a little
compassion. Give your mount plenty of breaks and variety.
While learning to canter, don't forget that our body needs oxygen. When
most students learn to canter, they hold their breath, which often explains
why they can't seem to go more than once around the ring. Breathing is
good for you. So breathe!
If you watch a horse canter, you'll notice that his head moves up and down.
But it also moves forward and backward, and your hands have to follow this
motion. Of course, as your horse becomes more collected at the canter the
movement will decrease, but in the meantime you must learn to follow it.
Hold your reins between thumb and forefinger. Having your hands in the
proper position will give you the flexibility in your fingers and wrists to follow
this motion. Otherwise, you absorb the motion at your elbow, which causes
a distinct flopping of your arms.
Controlling the Speed of the Canter
Most beginning students have trouble learning to control their seat and their
hands simply because the horse is cantering too fast. Their hands and legs
flop, which tells the horse to go faster, causing more flopping, and so forth.
You have to break this cycle, which means getting your horse to canter
slowly so you can learn your position.
As the leading foreleg strides forward, try to restrict how far it extends. This
means that as your seat comes down, you pull back. I hate to use the word
"pull," but that's what it is. What makes this pull work is the release --
relaxing the pull during the recovery stride -- before reapplying it to the
leading foreleg. One of the principal rules of riding comes into play here:
Steady pulls on a horse will not work.
Next, you must bend your horse during a turn. If you lean on a turn when
riding a bicycle, you go faster. If you lean when riding a horse, he'll
accelerate just like the bicycle. To maintain a slow canter, you must keep
yourself and the horse upright, and to do that, you'll have to bend him to the
degree of the turn.
As always, the secret to controlling a horse is anticipating his thoughts and
correcting errors before they occur. If you're cantering merrily around the
ring and you turn toward the barn, you can bet he'll canter faster. He might
also speed up if he's trying to catch the horses ahead of him. Tell him with
a half halt not to do that, before he gets to the corner.
A single half halt may be enough both to correct him and to signal him about
the coming bend at the corner. You may, however, need an extra half halt.
To help you better understand the role of half halts here, try this. While
practicing, begin a running conversation with the horse, telling him out loud
what you want. You'll find yourself warning him not to do things; these are
all half halt times. Sometimes your voice won't be sharp, and sometimes it
will. Now use your hands, your back and your legs, adjusting the intensity of
the half halt as you did your voice.
Keeping Your Horse on Course
To steer your horse at the canter (or; for that matter, at any speed or gait),
imagine taking him down an imaginary line. You don't want him to deviate
off that line by more than a sixteenth of an inch. You accomplish this by
looking up (most people incorrectly look down at the canter), focusing on
where you want to go, and controlling Justin's thinking.
If you allow Justin to veer two feet off that imaginary line, it's almost
impossible to recover without breaking stride or using extreme aids.
Instead, sense nuances and make minute corrections. Keep you horse on
course to begin with. The rein aids you learned at the trot also work very
well at the canter.
What to do if...you can't pick up the correct lead.
Analyze why the horse or you are having difficulty and communicate with
your instructor. The horse could be stiff. He might be trained to obey a
different set of aids. In fact, some horses are trained to bend to the
outside to pick up the correct inside lead. You have no way of knowing
this without talking it over with your instructor.
What to do if...you bounce uncontrollably while cantering.
This usually results from standing up in the stirrups. If you don't allow
yourself to come fully down into the saddle, a space forms between your
seat bones and the saddle, you grip, and the gap gets bigger with each
stride. The solution is to take a bounce, immediately collapse your spinal
column, and then start to follow the horse.
If you bounce only on the turns, you're propping yourself with one leg
or the other to counterbalance the leaning of the horse. So bend your
horse and stop propping.
What to do if...your horse trots faster instead of cantering.
Your horse may simply be misbehaving, but you probably forgot to use
the progression of aids or failed to build the contained energy needed to
You're on track if you can:
- Pick up the correct lead at the canter four out of five times.
- Make smooth and precise transitions into the canter, without your
horse tossing his head or otherwise resisting.
- Bend a cantering horse into a corner without leaning.
- Keep cantering on a 20-meter circle without breaking stride.
How Many Hearts Does a Horse Have?
Ask a horseman, and he'll tell you a horse has five hearts. There's the one
in his chest, of course. But he also has four auxiliary pumps -- one inside
They're called plantar cushions, and each resembles a sponge. As the
horse picks up his foot, the sponge fills up with blood. Putting his foot back
down compresses the sponge, pushing the blood back up the leg.
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