The Comfy Canter
By Jonathan Field
Have you ever watched someone riding along on a nice, relaxed, rocking-horse canter and dreamed of one day having your horse canter like that? It’s happened to me. The image of seeing this “dream canter” for the first time remains clear in my mind to this day.
Many years ago, I watched a demo being given by a top trainer named Bob Avila. As he loped around the arena on this beautiful mare so gracefully and relaxed, talking calmly to the audience, it looked like a really comfy canter to ride. He began to discuss this canter as he went slowly around on a big circle to the right.
“To me it’s all about body control,” he said as he started to demonstrate what he meant.
He continued on the right lead. With a slack rein, he stayed on the same line and bent the head both ways, from side to side. Nothing changed in the rhythm or the path of the canter he was on. He then demonstrated how easy it was to switch leads back and forth, which he described as something every rider should be able to do. Again, the horse’s emotions didn’t change: she stayed on the path to the right, switching leads from the right to the left, and then back to the right once again.
“If you really have good body control, you should be able to not only switch leads but change either the front or the back of the horse independently as you wish,” he said in a relaxed voice… and then he did.
Watching Avila ride that mare blew me away! At that point in time, I was young and naive, thinking I had “a good handle on a horse,” when in reality I had more to learn. For a split second, I had to admit that I wished I had not seen this amazing demonstration as I knew that I would never forget what this man could do… and what I could not. I also knew it was going to keep me up at night trying to figure it out.
Well, it did keep me up at night and, as a horseman, I am glad it did. In my pursuit of a more comfy canter, I learned a lot, more than I could ever write about here. I learned how to find a soft relaxed canter and how to feel the whole horse beneath me. I learned to feel where those hooves were, to notice the slightest imbalance in myself or my horse, to be clearer in my aids, and how to ride better.
Let’s take a look at the qualities of a great canter:
The ideal canter begins with an easy departure. This means that you must position a horse properly to best prepare him to depart. The horse must hold that departure position until asked for the canter. At that point, the horse is ready and balanced. He is able to easily pick up the canter and the correct lead. In transitioning to the canter from the trot, the speed should not increase drastically. Ideally, the canter is the same speed as the trot, or slightly faster. As the horse continues in the canter, it should be relaxed and rhythmical, the horse being balanced and collected in self-carriage. Remember Bob Avila’s mare that day? There is no reason there can’t be slack in the rein while the horse maintains its path. This provides a nice comfy canter that you can ride all day long.
Now that we know what a great canter is, let’s look at one that is less desirable: a mad run out of a bone jarring trot, for example. The first few strides feel like you have just ignited a rocket as the “canter” turns into a gallop. The horse swerves from side-to-side and wiggles like a salmon swimming upstream. As you approach the first corner, you pitch in like a jet airplane banking a turn. You barely make the turn. You are on the incorrect lead. Coming out of the corner, you fly out of control once again or break down into a bone jarring trot. Who wants to ride that?
I’m sure there are many people who can relate to all or some part of the previous scenario which is why I am going to try to shed some light on the topic in the hope of helping you find that dream canter with your horse. If you aren’t sure about bending and balance, then re-read my last article to learn how it applies directly to the canter.
Here are some points and troubleshooting tips to think about when building your comfy canter:
After having just departed in the left lead, I hold the departure position (the bow bend left) for a few extra strides in the canter. You can see Quincy’s nose is turned in the direction of travel, the shoulders and ribs are up and to the right, and the hindquarters are visibly able to step up and into the left lead. Holding this in the first few strides helps to remove anticipation and keep the canter from gaining speed in the departure. Photo: Angie Field
1) The Departure Position
Prepare for the canter by setting a departure position. This helps your horse balance and be able to pick up the correct lead. The bend in the direction of the desired lead is the departure position. The bend is a slight lateral bend through the body (think of a bow). The head and neck are directed towards the lead. The shoulders and ribs are up and over to the opposite side, thereby clearing room for the hindquarters to strike off into the desired lead.
When setting a departure, use both your reins and legs to position this bend. Ask the nose to move towards the direction of travel, then clear the shoulders and ribs out of the way for the hind leg to move forward to become the leading leg in the lead you want. It’s like rubbing your head and patting your belly, but when you get the position right, it works.
A common way leads are asked for is to take the nose in the opposite direction. This can get the desired lead; however, as horse and rider advance it becomes ineffective. One cannot gain proper balance and body posture, or cause the horse to use the hind quarters. The horse tends to throw itself onto the lead rather than depart and strike off on a canter lead. I recommend taking the time at the beginning to get the lead with the right bend and balance in the trot before asking for the canter departure.
Tip: Ride along, holding the departure position until your horse is relaxed, waiting for you to cue the canter depart. This can be done at a walk or a trot. You can ask for this position many times in a ride and not depart… just get ready for it. This will help your horse from anticipating and taking over.
Jonathan and this nice Arabian named Beau enjoying a comfy canter across a pasture at Jonathan’s James Creek Ranch. Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Field
2) The Canter Strike Off
When the horse is prepared and waiting for direction, cue the him into a canter. You will need a respectful response to your request from both your seat and legs. If the “go button” doesn’t work, the horse will likely run into the canter. Take your time. Bring your energy up and squeeze with your legs until your horse thinks and goes forward willingly and quickly.
3) The First Strides
No one wants to ride a rocket! The canter should not mean that the race is on. The goal in the first few strides is that the speed is as close to, or the same as, the trot that you just departed from. In those first few strides, hold the same position in your body as you had in the departure so that you maintain some bend and connection with your horse. This will be a slight inside leg and rein with a balancing or supporting outside leg and rein. Your outside leg will be touching the rib cage behind the girth.
Tip: Don’t throw away your aids as soon as you pick up the canter!
4) How Long to Canter
Once you can canter depart into the correct lead, ride a short distance at first, maybe a lap or two around approximately a 60 foot circle, and then stop your horse and rest him for a bit. This gives both you and the horse time to reflect on how it went.
If you rode two laps, how fast did you go? Did you hold your path or did the horse push out off your intended circle? Did you set the departure, prepare the horse for the canter, and then get a quick respectful response to move into the canter? Take a moment or two for reflection.
One of the biggest mistakes I see all the time is riders racing around the ring waiting for this wonderful canter to happen. No time is taken to figure out what part is working and what part is not.
Try these short and concise lessons before cantering longer in order to build a solid departure position, departure, and stride.
As your horse becomes fitter, you can canter longer, building up to ten minutes at a time. This allows the horse to develop purity in the gait, while developing your seat as well. Get into the rhythm of the canter as you make small adjustments to stay on the path, at the desired speed, with bend and balance.
Here is an exercise that I use in my clinics to help riders get started with a plan:
Mark out approximately a 60 foot circle using cones on the quarter marks of the circle. Put two cones on each quarter mark four feet apart and ride between them. Walk or trot a quarter lap, canter one lap, and then stop and rest to evaluate what you have just done. Do this repeatedly until the horse starts to anticipate the canter strike off. Mix the timing of the departure between a quarter lap and a full lap. Sometimes, hold and don’t depart at all. Use anticipation to your advantage to get the horse thinking canter without allowing the horse to take over.
When the canter gets comfy, stop your horse and let him rest and soak on it. It’s hard to stop when the canter gets comfy, because we often want more and more! It is important to stop and acknowledge these moments, rather than keep going until it all falls apart. By stopping and resting each time, you build on these little moments, and as you continue to set it up right, the moments become more frequent until eventually the entire canter is strong and comfortable to ride.
Remember, when learning to become a better horseman or horsewoman, you must plan what you want from both yourself and your horse. Be clear in your setup in a way that your horse can understand. Accept and reward the slightest try!
Main photo: Angie Field - A comfy canter is all about body control. Work on your departure position, the strike off, and the first strides to attain the canter of your dreams.