The canter can be a hard gait to learn, and the speed that accompanies the gait can bring anxiety for many beginning riders. In this article, we’ll talk about:
- cuing your horse to canter
- relaxing as you transition into the canter
- sitting correctly in the saddle so you feel secure and connected
- how to know if you are ready to canter
- + Four common canter cues
It’s difficult to say exactly what a particular horse’s canter command is, each riding discipline (dressage, western pleasure, games, trail, jumpers, etc) has different ways of cueing for canter- and every horse trainer has a unique take on training for the canter cue. Despite this difference, there is a lot of overlap in these cutes for signaling your horse to canter. Learning the canter cue for your particular horse might take a little experimenting.
The most common cue for canter is slipping the outside leg back a few inches and pressing that lower leg into the horse’s barrel (side). This cues the horse to push off with that outside hind leg into the canter.
The “outside leg” is the leg on the outside of the arena circle, if you are riding in a ring. If you are in an open space riding a straight line you can choose one side or the other.
For some very well trained horses, this cue is only meaningful at the correct point in their stride when the outside hind is about to land, but for most horses applying this aid at any time is a command for them to strike off into canter at the next stride. Other common commands are a slight thrust with the pelvis towards the inside shoulder (given at the same time as the command with your leg) matched with slack given on the inside rein. Verbal commands for canter may include a smooch, kiss, or cluck sound- possibly even the word “canter.”
If you’re having trouble locating your horse’s command for canter, you may have to train a new signal. For non-pro riders, the easiest method to train a new gait, rather than “chasing a horse into the gait” via aggressively riding a fast trot, is to work with your horse on a lunge line. Use the lunge line to practice many gait transitions (swinging the end of the line as needed to motivate an upward gait transition) and associate each with a sound (such as a “cluck” for trot, “kiss” for canter, and “whoa” for downward transitions)
Many new riders have anxiety about how fast a canter is, and sometimes the anxiety causes the rider’s body to tense up and the result is often a missed transition, a confused horse moving unpredictably, or even a rider falling.
The canter transition does not have to be tense! Anyone can learn to relax, soften their body, and ride the powerful surge of a canter transition.
The best exercise to help a rider relax when asking for a canter is to ride the transition many times on a lunge line. Ask your instructor or an experienced rider to allow you to ride a well-trained horse on a lunge line. In this method, the trainer can control the direction, speed, and gaits of the horse while you can then ride and focus 100% on your seat.
During the first few transitions, grab a bit of mane or the front of your saddle (horn if you’re in a western saddle) for security. Remember to keep your legs long and heals down to ground you deep in your saddle. When that becomes easier, use loose reins or no reins at all (and no grabbing for mane!) and ride through as many transitions up and down as you can handle.
Experience is the best way to relax and overcome anxiety over the canter transition. Repeating the bumpy and unfamiliar canter transition over and over in a short period helps make it familiar and trains your body how to respond to the movement of the canter. Over time and with practice you will eventually learn to relax while asking for and riding the canter, and as you relax, your horse will also. A relaxed horse will pick up the canter more fluidly, and as a result, actually, make the canter transition less intimidating to ride.
Learning to ride the canter can be a little intimidating for many beginner riders, but once the canter is mastered it often becomes a favorite gait. It’s easiest to learn to ride the canter with the help of a good riding instructor and a patient horse.
You’ll know you are ready to canter when:
1. You are comfortable riding, turning, and stopping the walk and trot.
2. You are able to match your horse’s stride posting at the trot.
3. You are able to walk and trot for short periods with no stirrups.
4. You are learning to balance yourself by stretching into, rather than pull up, your heels.
Don’t rush yourself! Some new riders canter right away, while in Europe it’s not unusual for a new rider to only walk and trot for a year or more!
To help you relax and enjoy your first canter, you may want to ask to canter for the first time on a lunge line. This allows the horse to stay under the control of your instructor so you can focus on your seat.
From trot, take a deep breath, make sure your heels are down, give the cue your instructor tells you to, and allow your hips to swing with the first surging stride of the canter. Try to avoid leaning forward- sitting straight in the saddle will help your seat bones stay deep and secure in the saddle.
If you are in a western saddle you may want to stabilize yourself with a firm grip on the horn the first few times. In an English saddle, you can grasp the mane to add stability, but avoid making these grips a habit.
Don’t be embarrassed if you are scared to canter, the canter is intimidating to many riders and it is ok to learn at your own pace. Your horse will appreciate the time you take to develop a deep, relaxed seat until the day you’re ready to canter.
The correct position for riding a canter can be difficult to pick up right away, but once a correct position is adopted, sitting and riding the canter becomes significantly easier. Below are a few hints and tips regarding the correct position at the canter.
The secret to riding a canter is to relax – particularly to relax your back muscles. Let your body swing just slightly in rhythm with your horse. keep your elbows flexible, letting your hands and reins follow the forward and backward motion of your horse’s head. The correct canter position remains basically the same as a correct position in general: sitting deep, with shoulders back and head up.
Researchers in a 2016 study noted that advanced riders have much more subtle movements in their torso at the canter than new riders do.
Western or English, the rider’s position should remain relaxed and upright. Resist the temptation to lean forward or brace your legs, as this will pull your body out of the saddle. Instead, relax and drape your legs around your horse, your heel position should create a straight line through your hips, shoulders, and head.
4 Tips for How to Make a Horse Canter
The transition from trot to canter is a bumpy one for most riders to learn. For both horse and rider, it requires more muscle and balance than other gait 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 your 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! Many riders can benefit from doing a hip-opening mounted stretch before working on canter transitions.
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!
With a Masters Degree in Psychology and two decades of experience as a horseback rider, breeder, and tack store owner, Tatum has developed a unique approach to coaching adult riders that integrates the physical and emotional aspects of developing as a confident rider.