Learning to Canter

I had a few of my young riders have their first canter just before Christmas, and I’ve decided that the first canter stage is the most nerve wracking thing to teach.

There’s so much groundwork and preparation to do, and if you get the timing wrong it can have catastrophic results.

Before I even think of a rider having their first canter, they need to be confident in sitting trot, have experienced working without stirrups – how much no stirrup work they do depends on how big the child and how bouncy the pony is. I like them to be very confident in trot, and to happily ride a “fast trot” in a balanced way.

In a riding school there are usually two or three ponies with perfect learn-to-canter canters. Economical in stride length and cadence, steady, and voice controlled. So I would familiarise the rider with this pony in a couple of lessons beforehand, and then they would ride this pony for a few weeks to establish their canter seat and confidence.

With privately owned ponies, I like to do some research. Either I’ll lunge them without a rider, or I’ll observe an older rider cantering them. Sometimes, ground work needs to be done with the pony, so that they canter next to a leader (from either side), or canter quietly and are balanced on the lunge. Often I will set the parents some homework to do with the pony before the child has their first canter so the environment can be as controlled as possible.

It’s important to choose the right day for the first canters, and equally feel that the rider doesn’t need to canter everytime they ride; base the decision on the child’s state of mind that day, as well as the pony’s way of going, and any environmental factors.

I’m probably a bit too cautious, with my riders spending a long time on the lead rein or lunge in canter; until they stay balanced without holding in to the pommel. I like to think all the running is good for me, but in reality it’s very easy to send them solo before they are ready and they have the skill set to steer and stop. Then they get a problem – usually a bit too fast, or not stopping on cue – and take a few steps back in the confidence stakes. Which overall makes their learning to canter journey more challenging. I predominantly canter them on the lead rein because the straight lines are easier for the rider, and very few ponies are balanced enough to canter circles on the lunge. However, it’s a very useful tool for particularly nervous riders or sharp ponies. Plus I like to revisit cantering on the lunge once they’re fairly established to refine position and work without reins or stirrups.

I don’t think a rider needs to have many canters each time they ride. Again, I base it on their energy levels, and how the pony is responding to the lesson. They might only do two canters, or half a dozen on each rein. Regularly cantering keeps the feeling fresh in their minds so keeps confidence levels up, but not overdoing it when they’d actually benefit from more focus on their trot work is important to remember too.

The first few canters I do with a rider, I get them to have longer reins and hold the pommel. Once they’ve found the rhythm and are fairly in sync with the pony, I get them to take the outside hand off the pommel but still hold the rein loosely. Then they work on keeping the hand still in canter. Then they can start to use the outside rein to help keep pony on the track, and to make the downwards transition. At this stage, I start to lead without a lead rope, just resting a hand on the rein and letting go for a few strides to introduce the concept of going solo. It’s also a good opportunity to check the rider can bring the pony back to trot easily. Because we’ve worked off both reins, the rider should be happy letting go with either hand, so a natural progression is to let go of the pommel with the outside hand and then follow with the inside hand. This may only be for a stride before they cling on again, but I make it progressive. Let go for the count of three, then four, then seven. Get them to let go earlier. Let go during the transition. All these baby steps will gradually build confidence until they are cantering without holding on without realising.

Only then do I seriously start letting them canter independently. The last couple of strides initially, then just leading for the transition and first couple of strides. Then just running alongside. And without realising, they’re off!

I think the reason I find it so nerve wracking is that it’s so easy to get carried away and move through the stages too quickly, not allowing the foundations to set fully. Plus, kids bounce out the saddle so much in canter I’m always holding my breath hoping that the homing device is fully functional!

On The Lead Rein

From which side should you lead a child riding a pony?

The traditionalist in me says from the near side, and that’s always the side we led from when helping out at the local riding school as teenagers. In the showing world lead rein ponies are led from the near side.

Ultimately, a pony needs to be happy being led from either side, as it is correct to lead from the off side on a road, and a child may need more assistance on one side than the other. Perhaps a leg which draws up so they tend to lose that stirrup more.

Equally, the leader needs to be proficient at leading from both sides; there’s definitely some skill in running slightly sideways with one hand on the lead rope and the other on the rider’s leg!

When you turn a horse around, you turn them away from you to avoid being stood on, so for me it is logical to lead on the outside of the pony. That is, from the near side on the right rein, and off side on the left. Particularly when cantering as you’re sprinting and want to minimise the risk of legs entangling.

This all means that there is a degree of leading from both sides. But I have to say that my bug bear is when leaders switch sides on every change of rein, interfering with the rider’s steering or the pony’s balance. I cringe every time I see a leader run quicker than the pony, go round the head, and resume leading from the new side. It’s distracting to the observer and distracting to the pony and child. Often you seem them actually move off their flight path as the leader darts about.

When leading a pony and beginner child the purpose is to be totally in control initially, and then reduce your influence over the pony as the rider develops their skill set. So initially a leader needs to direct every stride, but they should become more laissez-faire as the rider starts to be able to steer, start and stop independently. But it’s at this point where the leader switching sides can cause the most disruption because the rider’s aids are quite fragile and their concentration at it’s highest. They’re also learning the cause and effect – how much rein is needed to turn or how much leg is needed to go at that speed – so a leader walking in front of the pony affects this learning process.

Personally, I prefer to predominantly lead from the near side, so don’t switch sides at each change of rein. If I needed to switch sides, I’d wait until we were walking or halting. However, I always lead on the outside when cantering because I feel safer and less likely to get knocked by a stray leg.

I’m by no means correct, and I’m interested to know what experienced leaders tend to do. Especially as I’ve got a couple of years of lead rein coming up! But my observations from teaching are that it is best to pick one side and stick to it as much as possible so as not to distract the young jockey from their work.