The transition from trot to canter is a bumpy one for most riders to learn, and for horses, it requires more muscle and balance than other gate transitions. Because of this, and the relationship between the two (inexperienced writers tend to be a little bouncy in this transition and may inadvertently cause their horse to take this transition awkwardly or avoid it entirely). We’ve dedicated of an entire article to helping riders learn to ride the canter and the transition into the canter with less stress, but in this article we will be discussing specifically how to cue a horse to canter.A “canter” is a gait halfway between a gallop and a trot. Called a “lope” in American Western riding, the canter is a rocking gait that, once used to it, is many rider’s favorite gait.
Lots of people want to know how to make a horse canter. Although there are some specific ways to try making a horse canter, all horses are trained a little differently- so there’s no one right answer for how to make a horse canter. What works for one horse may not work for another, so to make you horse canter, try these different methods:
1. Voice cues
Some horses are trained to voice cues. If you are riding an unfamiliar horse, try kissing, clucking, or smooching. Hold on, because some very well-trained horses will automatically leap into a canter at the sound of their cue!
2. Use your body
One other way to make a horse transition into a canter is by using your body to give the signal. This is the most natural method for a horse, and when executed correctly the horse will slip into a very smooth transition that is comfortable for horse and rider. To begin, as you are riding at a comfortable trot, slide your outside leg back behind the girth (the outside leg is the leg on the outside of the arena, if you are not riding in an arena or other natural circle, bend your horse to one direction just slightly before you give the cue as this will help them balance their body through the transition). Press your outside leg against the side of your horse just behind the girth. If you are coordinated enough, at the same time relax your grip on the inside rein and slide your inside hip forward in the saddle. If you time this motion right- this subtle movement is so strong to the horse that they cannot help but take the next stride in a canter!
3. Use a prop
If your horse is reluctant to canter or purposely avoids it, try laying a pole in the middle of your riding area. Ride your horse up to the pole at a trot, and ride forward over the pole. Many horses will naturally make a small jump and take the next few strides at a canter. If you follow the horse and ride the canter well and encourage your horse to stay in the gait, they should remain at a canter. Be very careful, as horses who have not jumped over polls before may act unpredictably, including stopping dead in their tracks which can unseat a rider. You may wish to lunge your horse over the polls a few times without a rider first, so they understand how to hold their own body over the pole before navigating it with the rider.
If the pole on the ground doesn’t work, and you are an experienced writer with safety equipment, you may try raising the pole off the ground by a few inches. (Never attempt a real jump without proper safety equipment and instruction!) Be sure to reward your horse with your hands and voice when he does canter. Make sure when he strides into the canter (it could be bumpy!) not to yank on the reins. Holding onto a big handful of your horse’s mane may help steady your hands to prevent this. More tips on riding the canter can be found in our article on the topic.
4. External motivation
You may also, gently, use a whip to make your horse canter. Safe riding crops are designed to “pop” without causing actual pain. Make sure it is a short whip that is just long enough to swat your horse’s rump to remind him to be motivated to canter. Be aware of transition aided by the use of a crop, especially the first time, maybe very bumpy! If used fairly and correctly, a whip can be a good tool to help backup your natural aids to help make a horse canter. You may only need to actually use the crop a few times, my favorite show horse had the gaits of a plodding old cart horse until you picked up a short crop from the ringside. He knew just the presence of the crop meant my cues had backup, and resulted in a happy, forward gait and balanced transitions without ever having to lift the crop!