The Riding School: A column about the people who teach us how to ride

Today’s topic: Your student’s first canter. Our columnist discusses introducing this brave new gait in a way that inspires confidence, not fear.

From The Riding Instructor:

The canter: That magical gait of which all new riders dream… the wind rushing through your hair (or, uh, over your helmet), moving in perfect harmony with the horse, possibly along a beach somewhere…

Unfortunately, the reality is different. I have found over the years that with new riders, beginning the canter is really the most difficult step. Another instructor friend and I agreed that we are more nervous about starting students cantering than jumping – there’s just so much that can go wrong. And it’s a make or break moment for any rider; if they can get comfortable cantering, they are much more likely to stick with it than those whose first canter is, well, a little disastrous.

The difficulty is the position and the transition. Because of the rolling motion of the canter, students who are not well prepared end up with heels and hands up, pushing themselves away from the horse. If anything goes wrong, they are up on the neck, perfectly positioned to go splat when Lightning (bless her heart, she would never, but let’s just say hypothetically) screeches to a halt in the corner of the ring. And the schoolies seem to take offense more at the canter than the trot: the mild hanging on the mouth that they ignore at the trot becomes insufferable when they are asked to canter at the same time. Normally quiet, steady citizens suddenly will shake their heads, race around corners, possibly even – gasp! – buck.

A bad canter can take a while to recover from. When I first started teaching at my current barn, I had an adult student who the former instructor claimed was very comfortable at the canter. We tried, her weight got forward, the mare shook her head and stopped, and she fell over the shoulder. Normal, yes, but it took five months and a horse change (to a far more suitable mount) for her to feel okay about the canter again.

So here are my tips for successful first (and, for some students, many) canters:

* Everyone first canters on the lunge. This may seem like a “duh” statement, but you’d be surprised how many instructors don’t do this. They think the riders can steer and stop, so why not just do it on the rail? In my opinion, there are already too many things to think about: keeping your position, steering, actually getting the horse to canter. It’s better to leave the rider with less to worry about.

* For many students, especially smaller children, the first canter is with the vaulting surcingle (you all know how much I love it) or, at least, without stirrups. I know that seems more dangerous, but it’s actually much safer. We have grab straps on the front of the saddles; the kids can pull themselves down in the saddle with long legs and learn to sit the motion. With stirrups, they are much more likely to push themselves away from the horse and get forward. This is, of course, predicated on the students having ridden without stirrups throughout their early riding careers, something I definitely advocate. This doesn’t work as well with beginning adults; they don’t have that spaghetti ability to rebalance themselves that kids do, so I usually let them keep their stirrups.

* On the lunge, do multiple short canters instead of one long one. The hardest part of learning to canter is staying balanced in the transitions up and down, so this is the skill we really want to hone.

* When the student is ready to leave the lunge line, I always start her with a canter on it first, before she tries it on her own. This allows me to ensure that Lightning is in a good mood today before turning the student loose. And, of course, I make sure the rider gets very comfortable cantering in by herself before we try dealing with other riders on the rail.

I’ve been in my current position about six months, so many of the students I started are just moving into independent cantering and, I have to say, that there is no greater pleasure as an instructor than watching a small child bomb confidently around the ring with a giant grin on her face or hearing a delighted fifty-something beginner explain that she’d now checked off an item on her bucket list. No, they haven’t just completed Rolex, but a good first canter is one step down that road!

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