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:

  1. My instructor did not remind me to keep my heels down more that 3 times at my last lesson.
  2. My instructor did not tell me to keep my hands down at the last lesson.
  3. 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.
  4. I can post without reins and without leaning on the horse- down the long side of the arena.
  5. 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)
  6. 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

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • Hi
    Me and my friend go to the same riding place and she is already cantering and got to jump in her last lesson. She started to canter on her 5th lesson and I had my fourth yesterday but my riding instructor didn’t say anything about cantering next lesson. I have wanted to ride for so long and I wasn’t allowed to for ages. She has had 4 more lessons than me and is doing so much better. I have wanted to ride for longer that her too. When I try to talk about it to mum she tells me that I’m being ungrateful. What should I do and how do I know I’m ready and if so how can I tell my instructor? I’m dieing to go fasted please help. I have to ride the slowest pony in the stables and I love him but he is so slow and it’s really hard to keep him in trot. And I know it’s better to learn on a slow horse but I have learnt and I think I’m ready. I’m at the same level she was at this stage. I know you might think I’m all arrogant and jealous but I really want to be able to ride a horse properly. She keeps saying that I’m so much better than her when it is obvious that she is the one that is so much better. I know she is only trying to comfort me and convince me that I’m doing well but I’m not. I’m doing terribly and I’m embarrassed. So I just want to know how to know that I’m ready.


    • Hi Lily,
      I don’t think you’re arrogant. I feel the frustration in your comment.You sound like someone who truly loves the idea of riding. My first suggestions is not to compare your progress with anyone else. Everyone has their own path in riding and your success isn’t determined by someone else’s success. You need to be a bit kinder to yourself and not use your friend’s progress for self-evaluation. There is no formula to riding. Everyone progresses at their own rate.

      I can tell you are riding because it’s a heart’s desire so try to enjoy your lessons. And if you’ve only had 4 lessons so far, be patient with yourself.

      My second suggestion is to ask your instructor what you must accomplish in your riding before you can canter. Discuss this with her politely. Don’t mention your friend or compare what you are doing to what she is doing. Find out what you must personally accomplish to move ahead.

      You’re correct in saying it’s better to learn to ride on a horse you must encourage. This is because there will be many times in your riding future that you’ll need to encourage a horse who doesn’t want to go through something, or over a certain jump. You have the advantage of learning to use your seat and legs now. This pony may help you develop the determination to get you through sticky situations later.

      Those of us who have been riding for years will tell you that we all go through many times that we feel we are doing terribly. No one is exempt from that feeling. A rider’s progress is not from success to success. There are many bumps and set backs in between the successes. The riders who stick with it and become good, push through all the times that they feel like the are regressing and doing poorly. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. Take you time and enjoy learning to ride. Everything will come together if you persevere.

      Thanks for contacting me. I hope I’ve helped you. Best of luck to you in your riding.

  • In response to “show me you are ready to canter”
    I sent the link to all my instructors here. I wanted them to see that I am not the only one with a list. lol. I think having a list means I have fewer problems with campers pressing me for the trott and canter. We have several lists we use to evaluate and the campers are given lists based on their group skills to work on so that they can move up a group and therefore up to a new skill. These lists help keep instructors on task in a group setting and give campers goals.
    As an instructor I can use the list to support my decisions about rider abilities. I can also use my other instructors and the list (if personality conflict is an issue for me). Another management tactic we use is peer evaluation. We break 30 – 40 kids into groups of 8-10 riders they are each paired with one camper from another group. The observer spends 5 minutes with the rider before the lesson to determin what that rider wants the partner to watch for or help them with. Often riders truly think they are performing a skill correctly though the reality is different. Having a friend see it too means I am not the bad guy who just doesn’t like this camper. Also critical observation helps improve the observers own riding. It’s a win win! We also handle cantering with a hill. Most lessons are in the arena, but once you demonstrate basic controle at walk and trott you move on to trail riding. Once comfortable on trail using skills (yes there is a list for this too for instructors and campers) then we go to the hill for cantering instruction. We also see some accidental cantering on trail, but thus far have not had any fear issues. We practice positioning for the canter (the “ask” if you will) on the trail before the hill.
    My first concern is ALWAYS safety, first of the camper and then of my horses. I have run into a few campers who wouldn’t give it a rest, who were not ready by any standard. I pull the mom card at that point. Each time you ask me if you can canter you will automatically wait one more full lesson. I always follow through so they back off quick.

  • What I would suggest, if you feel like a student is ready and will stay on and stay safe, is lunging the student at a canter and having them hold on to their saddle. Once they get the motion more, have them take one hand off and hold it as if they are holding a rein. I like my students to be able to do a strong sitting and posting trot and to two point with and without stirrups so they really grip with their knees.

  • Barbara, “What do you look for as indicators that a rider is ready to canter?”

    I look for a combination of mental focus and physical coordination. If a student has these two abilities, I will put them on a very experienced horse and have them do the canter hill drill, which is done on a narrow trail up a hill in the woods.

    We use jumping straps (military web belts) on the horse’s neck, and all the student must do is get up into a two point position, which they have practiced at a trot over low cross rails, and grab the strap. The horses know to do the four or five canter strides up the hill and stop at the top. I am at the top on a horse to block them if necessary.

    Because we do a lot of work out on the cross country course once the riders get control, it is important that students learn how a canter feels in case their horse canters “not on purpose”. The boy who said he liked to canter “on purpose” was once before coming out of the creek at a walk, and being an adventurous boy he kicked his horse into a trot up a very small hill. His horse went into a canter for a couple strides and it scared him.

    I think generally of we teach effectiveness over style, then when something like an accidental canter happens on a good horse, it ends well. But still, I like to have the students know a canter when it happens, so we do it earlier than many stables.

  • What a timely blog post for me! I cantered in my lesson today (on purpose, LOL), about half the arena in each direction, and due to our prior preparation it was a positive experience (for my horse, too, whew!).

    I love your list and have printed it out to take with me next time I go to the barn. I’m going to test myself against all of the items.

    The checklist gives riders several opportunities to feel successful. Many people manage to not fall out of the saddle while the horse canters — we see this in movies all the time and try not to wince in empathy for the horse! — but that is not the same thing as riding and especially not the same as riding well. But I bet lots of riders cannot touch their toes and stay balanced while trotting! (I don’t think I can. But I’ll work on it.)

    • Regina,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you find the list useful but be sure to add you own “things” to it. (Maybe ask your instructor for one) And kudos on your canter lesson. Keep up the good work.

  • I had great success with a good set of school horses/ponies using a very fluid method. All students at posting trot, still working on spacing (circling encouraged), trot diagonals, position, and as each approached the designated short side they should rise to demonstrate two-point. I would assess, and if ready give the nod to squeeze into the canter as they entered the long side, relax and enjoy the ride, then pulling both reins (another marker, not needing a hand on the mane in motion), and sinking back for the trot transition at the next corner. If for whatever reason they were not ready (spacing, mental relaxation, physical readiness, etc.) then I would indicate to continue in two-point trotting down the long side working on balance & position & control. All felt empowered with ability, they learned to watch around them in a flow of traffic, there was no huge moment with everyone watching, the horses were not drawn back to a group, and I could focus on each rider in turn.
    Many smiles after this one!

    • Nancy
      It’s almost nirvana during riding lessons! I could feel the peace and relaxation via your email. Good school horses make teaching so much easier. And a method keeps everyone organized. What advise might you have for someone in the camp situation with kids pressing in for canter? Would you hold them off or succumb? (Just writing that brings a sense of stress! Ha!)

      • Hi Barbara,
        Thank you for your reply. Somehow missed it earlier.
        Situation rules of course when the camper is pressing to canter, and if the only risk is a kid falling off in a sandy ring (vs. not being able to stop, or abusing the horse’s mouth by uncontrolled hands) I may give in to the adventurous camper to have a go. Especially Western, where grabbing the horn is allowable until security in seat develops.
        I have had more pressure from students (and their parents) who think they are ready to jump, or jump higher. Much more firm about that as the risks are generally greater.

  • We have very good, tested lesson horses. Almost all fox hunt and are very aware of other horses and about staying in a group at an even gait. As a result, we can get riders cantering a little sooner than most because the lesson horses know the drill.

    I feel it is important to get riders into a canter for a few strides on a SAFE horse as soon as possible so if an accidental canter takes place, they are not so scared. We use a round pen to expose the newer riders to the canter for a few strides.

    One of my favorite stories about the canter was in a lesson group of 6 to 8 years old boys. I was using a gentle 4 canter stride hill to expose them more to the canter, and I instructed them to get up in a 2 point for the hill as they approached the bottom of the hill on their way up.

    They were all very excited by the canter up this hill, especially since the horses know to stop at the top. One boy said in a very enthusiastic voice, “I love cantering on purpose”. I then explained to him that was all we do. He smiled.

    • Bob,
      I love your story about the boys! And good lesson horses are the key. I rather like Littauer’s thoughts of stabilizing the horse. Learning to ride on a good horse first makes riding the difficult ones so much easier.

    • Bob
      Thinking again about your comment… I like the canter up the hill as it prevents the horses from cantering on too fast and I’m sure is exciting for the adventurous. What do you look for as indicators that a rider is ready to canter? What would you tell the camp instructor who is under pressure from kids and the end of camp looming?

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