How To Canter A Horse For The First Time In Pleasure Riding?

There are lots of articles online that give step-by-step instructions on how to canter a horse for the first time, and quite frankly they all read like trigonometry texts to me. I believe all of these articles are geared toward working with lesson horses or stable horses in an arena environment, and that is just not my experience.

I grew up riding a variety of different horses, mules and donkeys of my own for pleasure. I originally learned to ride bareback as a child and then was allowed to learn to ride with a western saddle and then an English saddle. I don’t have rodeo, showing or dressage experience, but I do know how to be in communication with a horse and ride safely and securely with various types of tack and in a wide variety of settings.

In this article, I’ll discuss the kind of relationship based horsemanship I use and describe a simple and natural approach to cantering with your own horse for the first time. Read on to learn more.

Everything You Do With Your Horse Is Based In A Foundation Of Trust

difference between a canter or lope

When you have a new horse, you may be very eager to put your new mount through his paces right away.

No matter how experienced you are, and no matter how well trained and experienced your horse is, this is not the best idea.

When you get a new horse, it is ideal to give him or her a month to settle in before you ride at all.

Spend this time in feeding, petting, grooming, doing ground work and taking your horse for walks. This helps your horse become familiar with you and his new settings.

Getting to know your horse and learning how to communicate with him while you’re on the ground is an investment of time that will serve you well once you are in the saddle.

Talk with your horse during this time and introduce any voice cues you may use when you ride.

Although I do not specifically use the Liberty method of working with horses, I do use a lot of the concepts demonstrated in this video to help build trust and communication.

Teaching Liberty Work – Advantage Horsemanship TV

Once you do start riding, it’s a good idea to ride at a walk or trot in all the familiar places where you have walked with your horse during your month of getting acquainted.

This is your time to learn to move with your horse, to understand his rhythms and adjust your own rhythms to suit them.

Riding in familiar territory at a calm and comfortable pace helps you to build even greater communication with your horse.

This is the time when you expand use of your own voice cues and perfect your ability to communicate with your horse through your seat, your legs and your hands.

When you feel entirely comfortable with your horse in a familiar setting, then you can branch out to unfamiliar settings and see how he does when encountering new situations and unfamiliar sights and sounds.

What’s The Difference Between A Canter Or Lope?

Canter and lope are two different terms for the same gait. Typically, we refer to this gait as cantering in English riding and as loping in Western riding.

The canter or lope is a three beat gait that is about the same speed as a trot but more closely resembles the gallop.

It’s a comfortable, easy gait that you can use to cover quite a bit of ground if you need to; although, a soft trot (foxtrot) can be more comfortable and is easier on your horse.

How And When Do You Canter?

To move into a canter or lope, you should be absolutely comfortable in the saddle (or bareback) and able to sit a trot in a comfortable and relaxed manner.

You should feel settled and relaxed on your horse’s back with no daylight showing between your seat and the saddle at the trot.

If/when you post a trot, you should be very much in rhythm with your horse. You should also be able to transition easily and comfortably from posting to sitting the trot as you’ll need to be fully seated when you start to canter.

You should be able to stay securely and comfortably seated without gripping with your legs or clinging to the reins.

If you’re riding bareback, it’s all right (and advisable) to take a handful of mane if that helps you feel more secure.

There’s no timeline on this, and there shouldn’t be. You should not be in a rush to canter or lope with your horse.

When the time comes, you should be in a safe and familiar setting, and you may very well simply be going along at a trot and feel that you are both ready to go a little faster.

When this happens, here’s what you do:

  1. Lean forward slightly to convey your desire to move forward little bit faster.
  2. Lift your reins slightly and move your hand(s) forward to loosen your contact on the horse’s mouth.
  3. Give your verbal or audio cue to speed up. For most people (myself included) this is a double-click of the tongue.
  4. If your horse doesn’t move into a lope or canter, give a little nudge with your calves. This should do it! If not, try another nudge. If you have long, Western reins, you may want to give a little tap to the horse’s rump with the tip of the reins, but this shouldn’t be necessary.

You’ll know when it’s time to canter because you will feel absolutely comfortable and safe and secure on your horse.

You’ll know that you’re able to communicate with him or her clearly and effectively using a wide variety of cues.

You’ll feel confident that no matter what happens, you’ll be able to convey your wishes to your horse and he will do his utmost to respond appropriately.

Three Tips To Improving Canter Transitions

What About Determining Which Lead To Use?

Lead is the term applied to the decision of which leg to lead with. In a comfortable and safe setting, free of rushing, your horse will be able to decide which leg is appropriate to lead with.

If you are in harmony with your horse and able to move with the rhythm of his gait, and your horse is in harmony with you, able to determine what it is you want and respond to your cues, he will also be able to determine which lead to use.

If you’re in an arena setting and working only in circles, helping your horse determine the lead can be helpful; however, with good communication and an absence of rushing and pressure, your horse should be able to determine the best lead.

What About Lesson Horses And Stable Horses?

My simple method for cantering for the first time only applies to dealing with your own, familiar horse.

If you don’t have your own horse or if you are riding at a stable or taking a lesson, you must listen carefully to the trainer or instructor to determine exactly what the horse you are riding knows and responds to.

Attempting to follow instructions that you’ve read online or any specific series or set of cues could very well be counterproductive and confusing to the horse.

Remember that horses are individuals, just as we are. Anytime you’re going to ride an unfamiliar horse, it is very important that you get specific, personalized instructions that apply to that horse before you set out on your ride.

Quite frankly, if I were riding an unfamiliar horse I would not attempt to canter or gallop.

What’s The Difference Between Moving Into The Canter Naturally And Following Specific Steps?

Using a relationship based approach to working with your horse is always preferable to treating your horse as if it were a vehicle.

When you build a relationship with your horse you will soon find that you can communicate without words. You can think of what you want to do and your horse will be right in step with you.

If your relationship with your horse is built on conveying your intentions through a series of set signals, you may end up building a barrier between yourself and your horse.

Ultimately, this can lead to a lot of trouble if you’re confronted by unfamiliar situations on the trail.

When you are in sync with your horse, your potential for safety, performance and enjoyment while riding are greatly elevated.

Here’s an enjoyable video that further emphasizes the value of good communication with your horse.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Which gait is most efficient for traveling long distances?

An easy trot is the most efficient for the horse and the most comfortable for the rider when you are going a long way over even terrain.

2. What’s the difference between cantering and galloping?

Cantering is about half as fast as galloping. Generally speaking, a horse may gallop at a speed of 25-30 mph but only canter at a speed of 10-17 mph.

3. What’s the best gait to prevent your horse from becoming overtired?

On the trail, alternating between walking and trotting is a good idea. Walk in rough, steep or challenging areas and trot over smooth, even areas. Traveling this way, you can cover about thirty miles without a break. If you canter on the trail, your horse will become tired in under five miles.

4. Can you canter on pavement?

It’s not advisable. To prevent injuries to your horse’s hooves, bones and joints, it’s best to stick to the walk on pavement and other hard surfaces and to provide your horse with well fitted boots if you will be traveling on this sort of surface often.

5. Is it alright to ride on different surfaces?

It is actually advisable to switch up the surfaces where you ride. This helps your horse develop good proprioception, encourages him to use different muscles in different ways and improves bone density. Just be sure you are familiar with the area where you are riding when you canter or gallop. Don’t go cantering or galloping off across an open, grass covered field. Stepping into a hole at a high speed can cause a lot of injury (or even death) for your horse and you!

4 thoughts on “How To Canter A Horse For The First Time In Pleasure Riding?”

  1. Thank you. Very helpful. Much easier to understand rather than having shouting at you while on the horse. A good lesson, especially like the rhythm and vizulation tips.

    Thank you


  2. Thank you. You explained the canter well. I particularly appreciated your suggestion of visualising lifting into the canter. It is a perfect way to conceptualise the transition to canter. Very helpful.

    • True, however, as explained, for the type of casual, informal riding I do and am discussing here, cueing the lead is not necessary.


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