When is a rider ready to canter?
A reader commented that students she was teaching at summer camp were pushy about wanting to canter and were unable to assess their own riding ability.
Camp is different
Camp lessons are different than private stable riding lessons in several ways. The kids have a deadline in camp once camp is over they are gone until next year. They want to get it all in before the deadline and because riders are spending their riding and activity time with peers, the competitive genes kick in. No one wants to leave camp feeling inferior to their friends. Add to that most camps end the season with a horse show or a parents day to show what their kids have accomplished. Kids place a lot of expectations on themselves for camp. Parents and friends, out side of camp also have expectations which adds to the pressure.
Rare is the child who is willing to work quietly and steadily toward the good horsemanship goal, especially when they see other kids in their group or other kids in general doing more advanced things. This is particularly pressing if they know how many days are left in their camp time. A lot of kids that ride at camp have to wait until camp the following summer to spend time with horses again.
It’s perfectly normally for some kids to want to canter. And it’s perfectly normal for some kids to dread cantering. As an instructor you’ll have kids that seem like all they want to do is canter, other kids who prefer to keep life at a trot, and the third type that look at canter and say,“Eh! I want to Jump”.
When you teach group lessons, which is the most common type of camp lesson, you have to be able to evaluate each student and each student horse combination individually. How well the horse or pony canters is crucial to how successful the student will be. A horse that picks up a nice western type of lope will give confidence to a child, while one that has long strides, a bit of speed, and cuts corners can be scary, leaving a rider with no sense of control. For the purpose of this post I’ll assume that the camp horses are fairly laid back but after a summer in the arena are probably cutting their corners.
What about the kids who are pushing to canter, acting like you, their mere camp riding instructor, is holding them back? I run in to this more with teens than I do kids who are in the single digit age group. Teens believe they are invincible and they have much more to prove to their peers. Jill asked if I could provide a litmus test of sorts, so that students knew what they had to achieve in order to canter and could begin to evaluate themselves, taking the pressure off the instructor.
Things go wrong faster at a canter so from an instructor’s stand point, we need to be sure we can keep riders safe. I tend toward being slower to have riders cantering for this reason and because a scare at canter can really set a rider back in confidence. I’m going to include some of my guidelines in this post but I hope that other instructors will comment on what they do and when they give the green light to cantering. It really boils down to developing your own list of proofs. Bear in mind that someone may complete every task on your list and you may still have a niggling sensation about whether or not they are ready. Even if you give your students criteria that they have to achieve before they are allowed to canter, the final decision must rest in the hands of the instructor.
What should your criteria be? I can not make a definitive list for another instructor because we each have our own pet issues that signal a rider is ready, but I will give you my general list as a base for your own. For me it’s all about where the rider carries their weight, how far they have come developing legs that work separately from hands, how they sit in the saddle, and how they use their hands.
A heel that is well down indicates that the weight of the rider is down in the saddle and through the leg. If I have to repeatedly tell a rider to keep their heels down, they won’t be cantering in that lesson.
Hands that fly up at the first sign of stress or when your rider uses their legs are an indicator that a rider is not ready to canter. When the hands go up the center of balance goes up and the rider is more likely to fall off. Some exercises for separating the hands from the body and legs would include toe touches.
Must be able to make circles without leaning, indicate that the rider walk and trot (posting) alone in an arena with hands and heels down, maintaining their balance and keeping the horse or pony under control. I also want to see that my rider does not tense up and lean forward in stressful situations. Leaning forward and grabbing the reins is a recipe for disaster at the canter.
I’m a stickler when it comes to legs. I want my students to have strong legs that can help keep them centered when they canter. Legs that wobble at the trot demonstrate weakness or that the rider posts off of the stirrups indicate weakness and posting off the foot. Since riders can lose their stirrups quickly at the canter, i usually require that they can travel a certain amount of strides posting without stirrups before they canter.
If students can not gently control and direct their horse at a trot, they won’t be able to do it at a canter.
Break It Down
Using my comments about heels, hands, body, legs and control, a list might look something like this:
I am ready to canter when I can do the following:
- My instructor did not remind me to keep my heels down more that 3 times at my last lesson.
- My instructor did not tell me to keep my hands down at the last lesson.
- I can touch my toe (Left hand to left toe, Right hand to Right toe) 5 times on each side at the trot without having my opposite leg fly up and without losing my balance.
- I can post without reins and without leaning on the horse- down the long side of the arena.
- I can post without stirrups for 10 strides (with quiet hands and not leaning on the horse)(Or maybe I would require posting bareback for ten strides or in the case of a western class, require two barrel patterns at the trot bareback, without losing balance)
- My instructor did not tell me to ride into my corners or to keep my space in my last lesson.
With really persistent kids I might put this on a sheet of paper with a check off box, that I check off. When all the boxes are checked I’ll let them try the canter in a controlled environment.
For the first few canters in my group lesson, I use the following method to keep it safe. Students halt along the rail in line so the first horse is in the last third of the short end and the last horse is still on the long side. I have the first rider canter individually down the long side and trot before they come to the short end.They may trot half of the next long side and then walk into line. I do this with each rider as they become first in line. Remember to have your line move up so the first rider is starting from the last third of the short end of the arena. On the first canter I try to avoid having the student canter corners until I can see if they are stable and under control. I don’t let them canter as a group right off the bat and I limit how far they may travel.
The best way to make your own list for students will be to examine your concerns and formulate your requirements accordingly. Instructors have to be very creative and set situations up that will insure success, for the rider, the horses and yourself.
Best of luck to you and thanks for reading The Riding Instructor.
Barbara Ellin Fox