canter long
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

 

Or straight on the trail! If your horse is safe and the trail is suited for a longer canter, by all means, try this in the great outdoors.

There is no greater feeling of cantering on - and on, and on. Although you probably ride the canter regularly in your daily rides, there is something different about "living in" (an expression I first heard from Robert Dover) canter until it becomes normal - and effortless.

Just like the other gaits, the canter offers both the horse and the rider many learning experiences. Although we often ride the three-beat gait during any given ride, chances are that you're in and out of it in less than a minute. Because even just one minute of consistent canter seems like an awfully long time when you aren't used to it!

So here is something to practice: if you think your horse is fit enough, go ahead and give this a try. After an adequate warm-up, head into the canter. And don't stop. You can even time it with a watch. Go long enough to start to find the benefits below, but not so long that you'll run your horse into the ground.



If your horse loses balance and falls out (without you asking for the downward transition), calmly get your balance, put the trot back together, find your good trot rhythm, and head off into the canter once more. You can change leads through a simple change (through walk or trot) or flying change. Just be sure to pick up the new lead and continue on as if nothing happened.

Start with one minute in canter. Then as you and your horse get fitter over the next few weeks, go to two minutes non-stop, then three. As with anything else in riding, the more you canter, the more effortless it becomes.

As you and your horse continue along, you will both strengthen and let go of tension. But there are many more benefits to discover.

Balance and Coordination

Many horses don't expect to maintain the canter for very long. For that very reason, they learn to disengage in the hind end after several strides and get longer and longer and... trot!

If you work at maintaining the canter, the horse learns that he should stay active in the hind end in order to feel better balanced. He'll learn to respond better to your seat and leg aids. He'll develop that "oomph" that he needs to keep going.

A longer canter will also give your body a chance to develop balance. You'll negotiate through the energy surges and drops from your horse. Your core muscles will work longer and develop their own intricate contractions and releases that will help your body stay in the saddle and maneuver within the horse's movement.

As you move around the arena, you will go from straight lines to curves to turns and circles. Both of you will strengthen in your ability to work through these changes of balance if you just give yourself enough time to adapt.

Conditioning

When the horse canters, his breathing rhythm ties into the rhythm of the strides. Cantering long term develops the lungs and muscles, making for a workout that is quite different from the walk or trot.

Same goes for the rider. If you canter long enough, you get a nice core workout that you might feel the next day!

Breath Development

Since the horse can only breathe with the canter strides, he will learn to breathe every step. Some horses puff in rhythm with the strides - those horses have already learned to regulate their breath according to the movement.

You might notice your own improvement in breathing as well. Many riders can easily hold their breath for the duration of a few canter circles. But even at just one minute, your body needs to finally let go and take a breath! You will be forced to breathe if you can maintain the canter long enough. Once you know how to breathe, you will have an easier time breathing at any gait.

Equalizer

The horse that speeds up in the canter will have enough time to settle down and discover that he'll run out of steam if he keeps rushing. He'll likely soften through the body, slow a bit in rhythm, and find a happy place where he can just keep going, but at a nice controlled pace.

The horse that likes to quit will learn that he has to give a little more - and even more. Soon enough, he'll get used to giving more and will develop the balance and coordination needed to keep going.

Suppleness

Once the horse settles in the canter rhythm, his topline muscles will find a release and he'll develop a better swing within the movement. At the end of the canter session, you might discover that his back loosens in the trot as well. His longitudinal suppleness will develop seemingly on its own.

You will also benefit. Many of us freeze up at the idea of cantering (and not even know it). If you put your body in the situation, and keep it there for some time, your tension will slowly dissipate, especially as your muscles tire. Once the release happens, your body can work on maintaining better posture over the long term.

Of course, don't overdo it. Keep your horse's current fitness level in mind. If you do go for a whole minute, be sure to give your horse a nice walk break afterward so he can catch his breath. If your horse is fitter than that, find the "just enough challenge" point without pushing him beyond his ability. Always err on the side of caution when doing something new or difficult.

Do you canter for extended periods? If you gave this a try, let us know how it went in the comments below.

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Read more about the canter:

7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition: The canter departure doesn’t have to resemble a rocket launch.

Use The "Canter-Trot" To Truly Engage the Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement - but that is nothing further than the truth!

How the "Not Canter" Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: How you can develop a calm and balanced canter transition from the trot. 

Try This To Feel "Forward": The concept of “forward” in horseback riding is a difficult one to explain, to feel and to be able to reproduce consistently.

Horsey Word(s) of the Week: Horses For Courses

 

30 Comments

  1. I started doing this with my students last fall for many of the same reasons you list here. I was very happy with the results- riders and horses that were more relaxed and balanced and a new confidence for both. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Your canter article really applied to me. Thanks for reassuring that I am not the only person with canterphobia. I will try your suggestions.

  3. My problem is MY lack of fitness..!
    I find I’m knackered after two laps of the arena..! I try not to hold my breath or tense up, but I seem to be working extremely hard to keep him going..
    Now in fairness, I’m a ‘mature’ rider and I’m only riding a lesson once a week now on a cob that seems to take a lot of urging on, even though he does pop into canter quite readily and makes good transitions up and down when asked and he has nice paces once you get him listening.
    (I was riding 3-4 times a week up to 6 months ago on another cob I had a share in but owner changed yard)
    I’m the only person ‘riding’ him, the rest of the week the kids tear around on him..He’s a favourite..!
    My tutor gets me to ride around arena and include at least two circles as well on each rein, probably for the same reasons you talk about here, but I rarely get that far..!

    Any tips?

    Thanks..I love your site and all the great posts..

    Marie.

    1. Go for a jog and concentrate on how you breathe – nose? mouth? do you hold it also? etc. I found that the more I concentrated on breathing while jogging (even just short sprints) I got better at breathing in time with the horse while cantering.

  4. Your fine article came at just the right time! To do more canter is my goal. Now I have some stategies and many good reasons to start today!
    Thanks!

  5. When I first got my OTTB, who was very hot, I decided to let him canter/hand gallop until he ran out of steam, then ask him for just a bit more. I figured it would be a good learning experience. And yes, I learned a lot. I took him to a very large field and started around it. After we’d circled it 12 times, I was exhausted and he was still snorting like a dragon. Note to self: OTTBs are really good at cantering!

    1. I hear ya mine could canter for hours if I let him. My t.b x would b the same I can canter for ages and he comes out of it trotting sideways hotter than ever !

  6. I love doing this. When I ride with my kids, sometimes we are trotting and then we just kind of look at each other out of the corner of our eyes and start speeding up and then we are cantering and kind of half assed racing and then everyone starts laughing about as hard as I ever laugh. I feel like I am fifteen again and galloping bareback across the field with not a care in the world. I never laugh as hard as when I am cantering in that carefree way.

  7. I used to canter polo ponies for 30 or 40 minutes with 30 mins walk before and after. Rode one and led 2 or 3 who trotted along. They were fit and sound. I regularly canter my dressage horse for 20 minutes in the school but would love to do it on tracks outside. He is 16 now and good legs and sound. I think it’s good for them just wish I could get back to a park with tracks. They get really relaxed and calm. No spooking.

  8. Thankyou again for your timely reminder on the. Benefits of the canter for longer periods for both horse & rider development I am at this stage win my mare who finds the canter stressful anyway I will work on this definitely !

  9. At the end of a year-long layup for a torn suspensory ligament, the vet at Texas A&M laid out a rehab schedule which culminated in daily 20 minute canters I used the river trail on my place and spent weeks reconditioning him. We were flying before long and what you say is all true. Balance, seat and rhythm all came together.

  10. Almost all my horses’ warmup routines include at least one full lap of the arena in canter on each rein. For youngsters or very unfit horses, they’ll then go back to trot circles or have a short walk break before moving on. But my older and fitter horses get 2-3 laps of the arena on each rein, moving on into figures in the canter, simple changes and counter canter.
    What amazed me most was how dramatically my horse’s dressage improved when I had started conditioning her for eventing. After regular 5-mile workouts in long straight lines, of which three-quarters would be in canter or gallop often up hills, her canter in the arena was worlds away from what it had been. The extra strength in her back and haunches really helped her sit down and balance. Far from making her canter faster, the conditioning work actually helped her find a slower canter.
    Even newly-backed horses are expected to canter for longer periods. I keep a good eye on them to ensure they don’t get tired out, but I don’t progress to teaching them canter circles before they can complete three laps of the arena without breaking to a trot. This stops the breaking-to-trot habit so that they’re more likely to maintain the canter when we do start circles.

  11. Never a more timely post! Thank you!! The question of how much is too much comes up quite often in reconditioning my not so young but not sr either un-tracked tb. I like to give him a lot more time than most to ease into/out of work before picking him apart for dysfunction. Especially since we’ve just begun working together. We will be including your suggestions as they are in-line with his current canter building ability/progress.

  12. This is so important. I have a rule at my ranch, that if they cannot maintain a lope 10 laps both directions around my outdoor arena they are not allowed to ride out. This is for their safety. It builds that muscle memory you need to be able to handle that moment if a deer jumps or a bird flys…. Thank you for this article

  13. My fit and feisty OTTB loves a good long canter. We usually do just as the article suggests; after a good warm up, we move to the canter. We use the whole arena, do 20m circles, and several changes of lead. We usually canter for 4-5 minutes straight. After this exercise, my horse has burned off his excess energy and tuned into his brain and breathing. I always used to do the usual walk to trot to a little canter work then cool down and end. While our program isn’t for everyone, it certainly works for us!

  14. Cantering for long distances or time is what got me really solid and confident at lope/canter. I was just thinking of that last night, how in a former time I was so tense at canter that I had a hard time being able to follow instructions in a lesson, while loping. Then I got with a different trainer and the main thing I gained working with him was confidence. I did so many long lope sessions, that I actually got bored while loping rather than being tense. So last night while working on my own and loping along I thought of how I can now multi task with ease at this gait. One thing I do think is even better is following the rail but pulling out to the center and doing small or large circles and then after a few, getting back on the rail and keeping the speed the same throughout. Some horses want to speed up when they are put back on the rail. Also, nothing quite like a nice hand gallop down a trail ore making humongous circles in a large field.

  15. I am definitely not comfortable on my boy cantering. I once loved to canter but it was always on horses that were well trained. He’s not. And I’m getting a little long in the tooth! (Some fear factor here too.) So I’m always either trying to just keep him between my legs or to slow down or to please just keep cantering! Not sure how I am going to accomplish this without an arena, but I know we have to keep trying! Thank you for this post – I’ll get more of a plan. And if I sing, I can’t hold my breath, so I’ll keep singing!

  16. I just started again after a 40 year break. Never rode school horses before. Seems to me they are old and need encouragement or young and full of beans. I believe more canter and more outside would cool down some of these hot blooded youngsters.

  17. Love the article! My OT Arabian will canter on the trail but when we are schooling in the arena he gets all balled up and bucks. He is well warmed up. Maybe I am transmitting my nervousness because I anticipate the buck. He recognizes when I am about to ask, the head comes up and he becomes very pushy and choppy. Whether in a bit or a hackamore, saddle is well fitted and he is fit. So I am going back to a lot of walk, trot transitions, faster trot, etc hoping he will roll into it on his own. I do to have an agenda!

  18. My arena is only 60 by 80 feet and I’ve been told that is too small an area to use for cantering in that it would harm the horse. Your thoughts?

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