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.
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!
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.
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.
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