Mastering the Canter – By Paddy Head A rider trots around the arena, posting in synch with her horse’s diagonal leg movement.
All is well – until she asks for a canter.
Within seconds the horse is bolting across the arena out of control. Paddy on Clargo – 4 year old TB gelding Many riders who have had this experience come to me and ask me to train their horses to canter properly.
They know that, as an ex-jockey, this is my favourite gait.
I’d be more than pleased to train their horses but I know the problem doesn’t lie with the horse.
This is a rider problem.
And this is how I would deal with it.
I will break the lesson plan into two phases.
Phase one will focus on the rider learning to canter on an experienced horse, phase two will focus on the rider training an inexperienced horse.
Phase One: To begin this phase, you have already mastered the walk and trot.
Your weight is evenly distributed in both heels and your eyes are up.
You can feel which diagonal you are posting on. (Okay, once in awhile, you can take a peek.) This work is very important because balance is the key for the canter.
The second important ingredient is relaxation. The Aids: Along with balance and relaxation, we’re going to add visualization you can see and feel yourself breaking into a canter.
The first step is to take a deep breath and exhale let your body (and mind) relax.
You have established communication with your horse at the trot.
You’re ready to canter.
To ask for the correct lead, you’ll begin at the corner of the arena.
As you approach the turn, you make yourself tall in the saddle (a position than requires more than sitting ramrod straight).
Turn your head in the direction you will be taking.
This sets up your focus which the horse will follow.
He will know something is about to be asked of him.
Your outside leg moves back behind the girth. (For some experienced horses, this aid alone will cue them to canter.
Some horses may need slight pressure from your heel.) If you’re riding a schoolmaster, he will immediately pick up the canter.
If he doesn’t something was not right with your aids or body position. First canter on Clargo Common Problems: The horse doesn’t pick up the canter.
This is where the first aid is important – balance.
You may have leaned forward thinking this would encourage the horse.
Or possibly you’ve leaned into the turn as if riding a motorcycle.
Leaning forward places the rider ahead of the horse’s action while leaning in encourages the horse to lean in the opposite direction to re-establish balance. The horse picks up the canter but breaks to a trot within a few strides.
This is where the second important aid comes in – relaxation.
If your body tightened as the horse picked up speed, your hands have closed on the reins, shortening them.
The canter begins in the horse’s hind end with the momentum moving through his back.
A tight hold on the reins constricts his neck which impedes this momentum and forces her back to the trot.
Added to this is the possibility you dropped your gaze to the ground, breaking not only the forward momentum but also your focus.
Though many people find this hard to believe, horses are highly sensitive to your focus, and will follow the direction of your gaze.
Short Stirrup Exercise: Here is an exercise that will help you not only with balance and relaxation but also with fitness. Short stirrup exercise on Aphra Behn Shorten your stirrups by two holes (approximately three inches).
Take your two point position, or galloping seat, first at a walk and then at a trot.
See how long you can hold the position.
Your legs will strengthen the longer you can hold the position and your balance will improve tremendously.
To make sure you aren’t jabbing your horse in the mouth, use a neck strap to help you keep the pressure off the bit. It may sound like I created this exercise, being an ex-jockey, but I was taught it many years ago by a jumper rider.
It is also used by top dressage instructors.
Phase Two: This is for the rider who has mastered phase one. (I don’t believe green horses and riders should learn together.
For every successful partnership there have been many failures.) The Aids: When the green horse is ready for a canter, the beginning aids are similar to those for the schoolmaster.
Even before the official introduction, should the horse produce a canter spontaneously, don’t discourage him by yanking him back to a trot.
Allow him a few strides at canter and quietly come back to a trot. Transition down to trot on Clargo When it is time to ask for the canter, you will begin from a trot. (Departing from a walk is more advanced.) Ride into the turn, preferably the short end of the arena as this will encourage your horse to collect.
Look in the direction of the turn, touch the horse with your outside heel behind the girth and back this up with a clucking sound.
Your hands are relaxed, giving the horse enough rein to come through his body and use his neck.
Lift your seat slightly out of the saddle (this is where the short stirrup exercise pays off) to allow him to round his back.
You are over the horse’s centre of balance, not ahead or behind his movement.
Be aware of your breathing.
The more relaxed you are, the more in synch you will be with your horse’s cadence.
Allow the horse to naturally transition down to a trot.
The number of cantering strides will depend on the horse’s fitness and athleticism.
Accept what he is able to give you.
Don’t be tempted by the ‘one more time’ mentality.
Always quit on a good note and praise him for his effort.
Once you and your horse are cantering safely and in rhythm, you’ll be ready for the next stage – the gallop.
I can personally attest to how exciting this gait is.
Though you may not be an aspiring jockey or a competitive show rider, a good gallop in a safe environment is exhilarating.
It is also the best confidence builder possible.
Mastering the canter and the gallop will make all other paces simple and easy.
Happy trails to you all! Paddy Head
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