It’s not uncommon for riders to feel nervous about cantering or loping. The power and speed of the gait causes some riders to have a nerve-wracking feeling of being out of control. For many, the thought of transitioning from trot to canter causes stress and anxiety. This fear can be frustrating and hold you back from achieving your riding goals and dreams.

1. Develop A Following Seat

Before attempting to canter, it’s vital that you are well balanced, supple, and have an independent seat so that you ride with soft hands and give light aids. Stiffness, bracing, and imbalance in either horse or rider creates tension that causes ‘disconnection’ as the rider is unable to move with the horse. That bouncing action contributes to feeling afraid and the sense of being out of control.

A nervous rider cantering on a paint horse.

Stiffness and tension creates resistance, imbalance, and fear. (Anne Gage photo)

When you can comfortably sit the trot without bouncing, you have a following seat (your seat follows and moves with the horse’s movement). As you trot, notice the feeling of your pelvis and seat moving with the horse’s motion.

When sitting the canter, your hips need to swing from the back to the front of the saddle in time with horse’s stride while your seat bones are plugged into the saddle. The key is in keeping your spine in a neutral position, engaging your core, maintaining your vertical alignment (ear-shoulder-hip-ankle), and keeping your joints supple.

2. Model Experienced Riders

Watch more experienced, confident riders doing transitions and cantering. Notice the rider’s posture, breathing, and aids as well as:

  • how they follow the horse’s movement rather than bracing against it
  • how they time their aids with the horse’s footfalls
  • the speed at which the horse is really traveling.

In your mind, practice cantering the same way. Mentally float into that other rider’s body. See, hear, and feel what they see, hear, and feel.

3. Lunge Lessons

Riders of all levels benefit from lessons on the lunge. Students at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria spend up to four years being lunged! Andreas Hausberger, First Chief Rider, says, “If you can’t sit correctly, you will never be able to ride correctly.”

Lunge lessons given by an experienced coach on a well-trained horse allow you to focus completely on your seat, posture, balance and aids.

4. Practice Transitions

The quality of any gait is dependent upon the quality of the transition. Bracing when asking for canter tells the horse to canter – and not to canter – both at the same time. Practicing setting up the canter transition, without actually doing the transition, prevents anticipation, helping you and your horse stay balanced and calm.

Do this exercise on a large circle:

1. Establish an active, balanced walk or trot.
2. With inside leg at the girth, create the true bend (your horse is bending in the direction you’re traveling)
3. Follow that bend with your seat while keeping your outside shoulder back (supporting outside rein)
4. Outside leg slightly behind the girth (to ask for the strike off into canter)
5. Elbows softly following and ready to release into the canter
6. Feel your pelvis and seat moving with your horse and sending him more actively forward

As you feel your horse’s back lift under your seat and his hindlegs coming further underneath him, you’re on the verge of cantering. Exhale and release your canter aids coming back to a balanced trot or walk.

You are practising setting up the transition. But, if it all feels right and you and your horse are both calm and balanced, let the canter happen. Ride a few strides on the circle and then come back to trot or walk.

5. Counting Strides and Cantering Circles

Place evenly-spaced markers on a large circle. Canter from one cone to the next. Transition down to trot. Balance the trot before setting up the canter transition. Alternate the length of the canter and trot periods. Repeat on both reins.

Make this exercise a positive one for you and your horse; avoid over-practicing or drilling. Notice how it feels when you’re comfortable, secure, balanced and maintaining control. As your comfort and confidence increases, extend the time in canter.

6. Practice Half-Seat

Half seat is between a full seat and two-point. Keeping your lower back flat and core engaged, close your hip angle slightly as you lift your seat bones up and back. Breathe deeply, releasing tension from your shoulders, arms, neck, and back. Focus on balancing hips over ankles as you soften hip, knee and ankle joints. Once you can comfortably maintain half-seat position in walk and trot, try it in canter.

7. Remember to Breathe!

It is normal to hold your breath when nervous or concentrating. A simple calming technique that automatically releases bracing and tension is to make the exhale longer than the inhale.

Take the pressure off yourself. You don’t have to canter or lope to enjoy riding. Travel at a pace that feels right for you so that you can build your confidence and enjoy every ride.