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 school horse.
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
Fine Tuning
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.

Your Seat
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!

Your Hands
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

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

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 each hoof.

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.
Woodland Horse Center
16301 New Hampshire Avenue, Silver Spring, MD 20905
301-421-9156          fax: 301-421-9049