Your Turn: 2 canter exercises you’ve got to try

Megan Rust recently stumbled across a couple simple drills that made a big difference in her canter and was kind enough to share!

Top photo: Wikimedia Commons

From Megan:

The other day I needed to find exercises to do with my Lusitano mare, Athene, for the canter. I went to one of my many equestrian books, 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider by Jec Ballou. In it I found several exercises, some for beginners and some more advanced. One I selected, and have been doing, is called the Cowboy Figure Eight. I demonstrated it for my dressage instructor yesterday, and she liked it. She said she’d do it herself.

You start the Cowboy Figure Eight by doing a 20-meter circle at the working canter, then start another one as part of a figure eight. At the center of the figure eight, make a halt. Drop the reins for about three seconds, and when you pick up the reins, leave them loose. Do not take contact or ask the horse to go on the bit. With loose reins, ask for a canter depart on the other canter lead and continue the figure eight. Half way around the circle, pick up contact again and make another halt at the center of the figure eight. Drop the reins for three seconds, and with loose reins do another canter depart into the other half of the eight. Again, pick up contact half way though the circle and come to a halt upon reaching the center. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Before you even start the exercise, make sure that your horse is manageable at the canter with a loose rein. Try it out in a round pen or a smaller arena to make sure. Offer the horse a bit more rein than normal, and do some easy transitions and patterns with the looser rein for about ten minutes. Then offer a bit more rein for a few more minutes, until you finally have loops in the rein as you ride.

This exercise is a good one for riders who rely on contact with their horse all the time. It teaches that the seat and legs are important aids, too, and you get a better feeling for them and their use. It also gives you a better feel for the horse, and what it does when you drop the reins. Not to mention what my instructor said, that this exercise helps the rider to learn how to drop and pick up the reins without fumbling. (Me.)


Another simple canter exercise is canter on a three-loop serpentine. Start out by riding the three-loop serpentine at the trot, the loops wide as the arena. Pick up a working canter as you begin a new serpentine, starting at A or C. After finishing the first loop, come to a halt, and hold the halt for three seconds. It will be easiest to ask for the halt at the end of each loop. You don’t need to worry about a prompt, square halt, but make sure the horse stands straight in the halt.

Once you’ve held the halt for three seconds, take two strides at walk or trot, and ask for the new canter lead and go around the next loop. After completing the loop, come to a straight halt again, and wait for three seconds before moving forward in two strides of walk or trot. Wash, rinse, repeat.

This exercise will help your horse maintain better balance. I found with Athene that it look her a few tries to do the loops with good form, not only with a proper canter, but also with a proper shape to the serpentine.

Have fun with these exercises, and keep thinking about using your seat and legs as well as your reins. Athene had a blast doing these with me, and really got into it.

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Megan Rust lives in Port Townsend, WA, after spending 44 years in Alaska, where she worked as a professional pilot. As a teenager, she started and showed a Morgan-ish grade mare, but took a 30-year hiatus from horses after high school. She returned to a horsey life in 2003, and now she shares her time with a husband, a tuxedo cat, two Pomeranians, two WB mares, a Lusitano mare, and two miniature jennies.


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