The Athletic Rider: Developing Your ‘Canter Fitness’

Committing to a fitness program can be a leap of faith in that you may not always see the results immediately. Equestrian personal trainer Leah Hinnefeld discusses trusting the process.


I have said this before, BUT…

There is nothing I love more than when a client asks me a question (or expresses a frustration), and then on my very next ride, the answer is revealed through the fitness training of one of my horses. Of course since both horse and rider are athletes, there should be an obvious connection!

Interestingly enough, more often than not, getting the horse fitness part comes easier for riders than getting the human fitness part. What is even more interesting to me is that the boot campers that have the most patience in developing their own horses have the least patience in developing themselves. So having an answer or explanation that “speaks horse”seems to make the a-ha’s and epiphanies come sooner. 

Recently one of the boot camp graduates was frustrated that she was not seeing the visual results that she felt she should be seeing. She had graduated from boot camp and continued using her boot camp program for about 30 more days. At the time of the question, she was a few days into a new program — so she was getting into her fourth month of training. Now don’t get me wrong, I have seen her boot camp before/after photos, and she had some incredible results! But like most of us, she didn’t see the changes in herself that we all see in her. 

Because I have personally completed several of the actual programs that I use in my boot camps, I know firsthand to trust the process. I have seen it happen time and time again that when someone does the daily “fitness and nutrition assignments,” the results happen. However, being new to fitness or a particular program can make it a little harder for someone to trust the process. Understandably so!

Later that day, I was working on the canter with my horse Hugo. Hugo is 11 years old and, for the record, he is a punk. He has been an adorable opinionated punk since he was four months old. (I was told he was a punk from the day he hit the ground, but I have only witnessed it since the day we met.)

Hugo is strong minded, impatient and gets frustrated when he gets ahead of himself (OK… when I mistakenly allow him to get ahead of himself — but sometimes he just has to see for himself that he doesn’t have all the answers!) He prefers knowing where the path will lead as opposed to trusting the process — mine or anyone’s. Now, I am not saying my boot campers are punks, but many of them do get frustrated when they can’t see the path ahead and only have the option to trust the process.


My punk, Hugo

So how do you help a horse like Hugo develop his canter? I had a chance to play with the answer to this question on that particular day because Hugo was not trusting the process at all.

As a hunter rider, I know the canter must be developed properly because it is the gait that is the foundation of about everything we do in the hunter ring, from riding the course to flying lead changes to the under-saddle class. I’m not trying to discount the walk, the trot, or other disciplines, but the goal in the hunters is to have a strong, effective canter that is simply breathtaking to watch in the arena. 

The key to developing an amazing canter is to put it together piece by piece and bit by bit each and every day. Your training has to address each of the ingredients of the canter individually. If you ignore one ingredient or focus too much on another,  the canter just won’t develop properly and you will not make progress. For example, the horse needs to have a soft jaw and mobile hips. The horse needs a lifted, supple back and correct weight distribution.

At first you may only get one to two good steps of beautiful canter before you have to go back to work on the ingredients. At first you may not be able to see the path. At first you might just have to trust the process. Ask any trainer who has seen several horses complete a “canter program” and you can bet she trusts the process because she has seen it succeed time and time again!

So how do you help a rider develop her own fitness? We know the goal is to be strong and effective in the saddle and healthy in life. OK, let’s admit it, looking good isn’t so bad either. 


The key to developing amazing rider fitness is to put it together piece by piece and bit by bit each and every day. The rider’s training has to address each of the ingredients of rider fitness individually. If she ignores one ingredient or focuses too much on another, her overall fitness and health just won’t develop properly, and she will not make progress.

A rider needs a solid nutrition program. She needs a well-designed program with the five rider fitness focuses (core, balance, cardio, strength and flexibility). At first she may only be able to do one to two additional reps or pushups before she has to drop her weights or modify an exercise. At first she may not be able to see that six-pack or bicep “gun show.” At first she may not be able to see the path. At first she might just have to trust the process… BUT ask any rider fitness trainer who has developed several boot campers and you can bet she trusts the process because she has seen it succeed time and time again.

Riders: be kind to yourself. You are developing an amazing living machine. Try to be at least as patient with yourself as you are with your horse. And learn to love yourself even more today than you did yesterday. After all, your body is the only one you have. 

Leah Hinnefeld is a lifelong equestrian who spent over a decade studying hoof health and metabolism in horses before turning her attention to rider fitness. Leah is a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Fitness and offers Virtual Fitness Training for riders and horse lovers. You can learn more about how to get fit to ride at Please contact Leah if you are interested in learning more about the Rider Fitness Boot Camps offered by The Athletic Rider.


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