No doubt about it, some horses have rough canters. This disquieting trait can be due to several reasons. Poor conformation is one. A horse that’s built higher in the hindquarters than the front end gives the rider the sensation of perpetually traveling downhill. Another is a lack of training. Fast, unbalanced horses that careen around their turns are unlikely to have smooth gaits.
- Check the length of your stirrups. Sometimes riders who are struggling to sit the canter shorten their stirrups, thinking that will give them more security. But unfortunately it has the opposite effect. Stirrups that are too short actually push the rider’s seat out of the saddle. English stirrup irons should bump your ankle bone when you sit in the saddle with your legs hanging loose against your horse’s sides. If you ride western, they should be long enough so that you merely have to tip your toe up to slide it into the stirrup, creating a slight bend in your knee.
- Can you canter without grabbing tightly on the reins—and thereby the horse’s mouth—for support? Are you confident enough to canter without holding the pommel or saddle horn (or mane) to steady yourself? If you feel insecure at the canter, and like you need to hold on to something, then you probably need to go back to the trot and work on developing an independent seat. Much like a skier or surfer, you must learn to rely on strength from your core muscles for balance.
- If you believe you canter confidently, but you start bouncing in the saddle after a few strides, then you may be trying too hard to hold yourself in place. Both English and western riders have a tendency to grip too tightly with their knees and thighs. Then their seat pops up and out of the saddle with every stride. Does this sound like you? If so, allow your entire leg to unwind. Stretch your calf muscles and sink your weight down into your heels, so you end up sitting “in” the saddle rather than “on” the saddle.
- Any amount of rigidity or stiffness in your lower back will also prevent you from sitting the canter. To help you get a feel for allowing your body to move in synch with the motion of your horse, ask one of your barn buddies or a local riding instructor to longe your horse with you on board. Make sure you tack up your horse as usual, and that he behaves on the longe line. Tie a loose knot in your reins, at a length where the knot can rest comfortably against your horse’s mane. Then, periodically while you’re being longed at the trot and canter, you can drop the reins and try holding your arms out to the side (like an airplane) or folding your arms across your chest. Such exercises allow you to develop a sense of balance and confidence in the saddle without also worrying about pace and steering.
- Riding periodically without your stirrups, regardless of whether you prefer and English or western saddle, will also help improve your seat at the canter.
If you avoid cantering because it’s scary or downright painful, don’t give up. Floating seamlessly around the arena at the canter or confidently cantering on the trails really is an obtainable goal.
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