Many of our guests come to the ranch with visions of cantering (aka loping or galloping, but we won’t get into the distinction between the three here) through the mountains with their horse’s mane blowing in the wind. It is a great feeling to move out that fast on a horse, but it is also the closest thing to the flight response that we ask our horses to do. If something is going to go wrong, the speed of the horse only magnifies that moment. So, there is no wonder that it also can be intimidating for some riders. If you are tempted to click away, thinking to yourself, “Self, I know how to canter, this isn’t for me,” then we would encourage you to keep reading. Even if you are an expert rider, if there really is such a thing, you may learn something new or be reminded of something you’ve forgotten. After riding with some of the best horse trainers in their respective disciplines, I still learned a ton from what other horse folks have to share and I learn something every day from our wranglers.
For those who have taken riding lessons, you know that most horse trainers take months teaching the basics and helping you master your seat before moving into the canter. It is a well-known theory that the best way to improve the canter is to improve the trot. Why? Because if you can master your technique at the trot, then you will be ready to handle the canter. With only a week at the ranch, we don’t have the opportunity to help you master all the basics, but we want you to have as many riding experiences as we can safely provide you during your stay. We provide so many instructional opportunities with our horse program, and want to see every guest reach the next level of horsemanship while at the ranch!
Why might it be hard to canter?
For novice riders, there are several riding errors that can make learning to canter challenging. Horses recognize if their rider is hesitant to canter, and they respond by being hesitant themselves. They also learn very early on that new riders often respond to the canter departure by pulling back on the horse’s mouth, and then use the reins to balance—thus pulling on the horse’s mouth during the canter. And last, novice riders tend to still be mastering their seat, so as the horse canters the rider slams down on the horse’s back with each stride. It’s easy to see why your horse may get frustrated and feel little incentive to canter. Cantering is hard work anyway, and now you are making it uncomfortable for your horse!
So, we have a challenge. We are dealing with horses, who are not motorized vehicles, but instead have feelings, fears, habits, and opinions of their own. And we have riders who have not fully mastered the more basic elements of riding before trying to canter. As you make mistakes while you learn, your horse is either forgiving you, ignoring you, attempting to make sense of your incorrect cues, or trying to compensate for your mistakes and take charge of the situation. So, what to do?
- First off, please understand that you accept risk anytime you work with a horse. Cantering takes that to the next level. Our wranglers will use all their training to evaluate you and your horse to determine if you are ready to canter, but we will often let you give it a try with limited riding experience with the understanding that you are accepting any risk that goes along with that.
- Take the time and be patient to get closer to mastering your skills while at the walk.
- Can you control your horse’s forward, backward, and lateral movement successfully?
- Have you found how to have soft hands at the walk and trot?
- How balanced is your seat? Are you centered, not tipping forward or falling back, and with even pressure on your feet?
- Have you established yourself as your horse’s leader, instead of just a passenger?
- Ask the wranglers to evaluate you and give feedback! Even if you have been riding for years, recognize that you likely still have much to learn. Horsemanship is a lifetime learning experience, and the best horse people never claim to be experts.
- Try loping on the trail with a horse in front and a horse behind to help your horse control their speed. Horses like to follow, so if there is a flat section of the trail with no obstacles, riding with a horse in front and behind can be an easier way of feeling the lope so you can focus on finding your seat.
- Remember when you lope that you must do two conflicting things:
- Reach your hands forward as your horse transitions into the gait, as they need to lift their shoulders and lunge forward to move into the gait, so they need a loose rein for that movement.
- Sit back on your seat pockets, and imagine you are on a swing and move your hips with the horse.
- Although it is easier to ask a horse to canter from a trot, it is hard for a horse to move into a lope from a fast trot. Often horses will opt for a fast trot when you cue them to pick up their speed as trotting is an easier gait for them that cantering. If your horse starts trotting super-fast, you may get disoriented, and your horse will have a hard time with the transition. Bring them back down to a slow trot, gather yourself, and get your horse ready again for the transition.
- As you begin to canter, if it feels fast, resist the urge to pull back to slow your horse down. Your horse may respond to that pressure by just stopping or they might lean into the bit and keep going faster. Instead, use your seat and your breath to slow your horse down, and put them gently into an arching circle so they must rate their speed a bit. This works better in an arena setting. On the trail, if you are behind another horse with a skilled rider, they can rate their speed to help your horse rate theirs.
- If you are in the arena, you may find your horse wants to cut corners and dive into the middle. Use what is called a blocking rein to keep them on the rail. When horses cut corners or dive into the middle, they drop their inside shoulder, which makes for a very uncomfortable gait. Another way to help them not drop their shoulder is to avoid leaning in with them. Horses are not like bikes, and leaning into the turn does not help make the turn happen smoothly. Stay centered and balanced with your body.
There is a lot to think about, but it is so worth the investment in sorting through all these details to have a more successful and rewarding riding experience! We hope between this and the many instructional opportunities both on the trail and in the clinics here at Vista Verde that you can find your way to that moment you have been dreaming of, with the wind in your face and a huge smile on your face!