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.

Leading Feisty Horses

One of the first thing everyone learns is how to lead a horse correctly. I’ve spent hours with Pony Day children teaching them to walk by the shoulder, stand on the left of the horse, turn the horse away from them, and hold the right hand just below the head and the excess lead rope in the left hand, to avoid trippage. But these are docile riding school ponies who are used to being led around by the ears.

Leading a fresh or excited horse is a whole new ball game.

So what’s the first thing to think about? If I know a horse is likely to play up I automatically put my hat on. Yeah, so what if it’s a 10hh Shetland, my head is very important to me! Gloves are useful too, especially if you will be working with that horse for a while. Holding on to a naughty horse is hard work, and usually hot work, so I check I’ve got the right clothes on. I don’t want to be unzipping a gilet or sweating buckets.

Then you should look at your method of restraint. Is he strong enough that you need a bridle? If you have a bridle are the reins a good length? Would a lunge cavesson be of any benefit? It’s always better to be safe than sorry. There is also the dreaded chiffney available …

It sounds silly, but think about when you’re going to be taking the method of restraint off. If you are, for example, turning a horse out who’s been on box rest for a week, a bridle is a good idea. However, you don’t want together to the field and have to start faffing with the noseband or threading the throatlash through the keepers while the horse dances around at the gate. Ensure the bridle is secure, but at the same time easily undone.

Think about the route you’ll be taking; either to trot the horse up, or turning him out, and do your best to avoid hazards, such as another equally exciteable horse being led around. Another tip is to work in pairs. Another pair of hands to open and close gates, or move hazards, will make the exercise much less stressful.

Yesterday I was about to turn out a pony and another exciteable gelding, who goes to the field like a kite on a windy day. Usually the pair are manageable, but as I was about to get them out of the stable I changed my mind. The week old foal had just been turned out with her Mum, and the pony I was about to take to the field, was cantering around his stable, fretting. I left him there and took them one at a time. I was glad I did too, as both geldings were a handful, and taking them together would be asking for trouble.

Once you are ready to lead your fresh horse (hat on, bridle on), take a moment to calm yourself. It’s easy to get uptight about the potentially scary experience, but the horse will pick up on your angst and behaviour worse. Then sort out the body language; stand tall, shoulders back, chin up. Everything that asserts dominance, that you are in charge of the situation. Hold the horse firmly under the chin with the right hand and excess rope in the left. When a horse is on his toes I try and walk with my right hand outstretched. This shows the horse my personal space. I can see what’s going on more easily, and my feet are out of the way of his dancing toes. Another horse I turn out shows stallion like behaviour – head snaking in an attempt to dominate me. Having him at arms length protects my face. Another thing to try is to have your elbow quite high, so you can prod the horse in the neck if he comes into your space, and if he gets strong you can anchor yourself against him.

Keep moving when leading the fresh horse. Walk purposefully and he is more likely to settle as he’s going somewhere. Walking slowly bores them, and like an under stimulated child at school, they begin to misbehave. Another thing that drives horses mad is being turned in a circle as they are led. It elongates the exercise, which is of no ones benefit, and the handler invariably ends up in he middle of the circle with a more excited horse.

Finally, you should remember  to talk to the horse. Soothing tones will help relax him, whilst a firmer tone helps discipline him.

Leading a strong, or fresh horse is never an enjoyable job, but by planning and going in prepared you should feel more confident, which will rub off on the horse and hopefully make him more amenable and the whole process less stressful.