If you take riding lessons, your coach will at some point teach you the common basic aids for cantering from the trot.
1) First, establish a sitting trot and maintain a correct, deep position in the saddle.
2) Next, position your pony or horse in the direction that you wish to travel by lightly bending it in that direction with your inside rein, placing your inside leg on the girth, and keeping your outside leg slightly behind the girth. (The outside rein will keep the balance and support.)
3) Put your weight slightly on your inside seat bone.
4) Lastly, apply both your legs, and your horse or pony should then strike off into the canter in the direction of the bend.
It sounds easy, but many exercises with horses are easier said than done! The quality of your canter depart will, in fact, depend on several factors, including the age and training level of the horse or pony that you’re riding, and your own personal skill-level and balance. “The most common error I see at shows,” says top coach and judge Kitty Bowland, “is the horse running onto the forehand or pulling into the canter.”
To transition into a smooth canter, it’s essential to stay relaxed, using your following seat with a soft lower back, free hip joints, receptive seat bones and buttocks, and elastic knees and ankles. Staying relaxed isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially when you’re just learning to canter, or when the horse you’re riding is tense or being difficult. When you do get the perfect canter depart, though, it will feel wonderful!
Kitty, who has participated in all equestrian disciplines over the years, says, “There should be no difference in the canter depart for dressage or hunter. Balance is the key. In dressage, the levels require more and more self-balance and carriage, and canter departs become more upward and forward. But the basic canter depart should be the same.”
As for Western riding, Kitty says, “The difference between English and Western is very small, except the stride of the English horse is longer.” The Western canter, called a lope, is slow and relaxed, and should be performed in self-carriage with a light or loose rein. The rider should be vertical to keep the lope straight and balanced laterally (side-to-side), with weight distributed evenly to both feet, no matter what style you’re riding.
With practice, your canter depart and the canter itself should become a happy experience for both you and your horse. As Sally Swift wrote in Centred Riding 2, “The canter can be the most beautiful of gaits with soft lift, rhythm, and swing – a joy to ride in harmony with your horse. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced rider, working on improving your canter work will help you remain in balance with your horse and apply your aids (seat, legs, hands, and even breathing) with more ease and clarity.”