Horse Riding Lessons Blog

Are Your Canter Aids Working? Part 2

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First let’s look at why overly short reins prevent canter strike-off as you learn to ride a horse.  Then we’ll look at another common problem: sitting to the trot to ask for canter.

Reins too Short

If you hold the reins too tightly when giving the aids for canter in your horseback lessons, the horse cannot stretch into the canter stride. It won’t be clear to him what you want because you’re applying the brakes.

The canter may be a faster gait, but it doesn’t have to be uncontrolled. With your reins no shorter than in trot, ask for canter as outlined above then relax and allow the horse to move. If you feel nervous, apply smooth half-halts with the outside rein. The horse will slow down, but you must keep your legs on him otherwise he will trot again.

A Word About Crossing the Reins

When you learn to ride a horse it’s tempting to cross the inside rein over the horse’s withers when asking for flexion in canter. If you do this – whatever the gait – you restrict the horse’s inside shoulder, making it impossible for him to move freely forward.

Place each hand firmly on either side of the horse’s neck. Remember: the left rein goes on the left side and the right rein goes on the right side. Always.

Sitting to the Trot

Early on when you learn to ride a horse you’ll be taught how to post to the trot. However you don’t yet know how to sit for long periods at this gait.

Which is tricky when it comes to the canter, because you have to be able to sit out a few strides in order to ask the horse for canter strike-off. Your problem with the canter aids may be that you bounce around so much when you try to sit out those few paces, that you lose your balance.

If this is what happens to you, ask your instructor for help on the lunge to help you relax in the saddle and lengthen your legs.

If this isn’t possible, try this. You know how to sit out a stride to change trot diagonals, so instead of sitting out one stride, sit out two strides to get back on the same diagonal. When you can do that comfortably, sit out three strides. Gradually build up to four strides. That’s all you need.

Once you can do that, apply the canter aids as outlined above and your horse will comply.

The canter doesn’t have to become an issue for you. When you understand why your aids don’t work, correct them and you’ll soon be cantering without a second thought.


Understanding Rhythm, Tempo and Speed When You Learn to Ride a Horse

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We’ve discussed how, when you learn to ride a horse, you should create relaxation in your mount.

This leads to regularity of movement in the horse: he exhibits a freedom of gait, unrestricted by the rider. This is why achieving regularity in your horse’s stride is so important. It is something you can (and should!) work on right from your first time on a horse.

Three Riding Terms

You’ll hear three terms used in connection with regularity: rhythm, tempo and speed. They don’t mean the same thing, and understanding the difference between them is crucial to your progress as a rider.


This refers to the footfall sequence of the gaits. In dressage this means the four-beat walk, the two-beat trot and the three-beat canter.

The rhythm should remain the same within each gait. Any unevenness indicates a problem, such as tension in the horse due to lameness, fear, pain or plain unhappiness. You need to investigate the cause of unlevel footfall.


This refers to the frequency of strides or hoofbeats per minute. When a horse lengthens in any gait he should cover more ground per stride, when he is collected he should cover less ground per stride. The tempo should not change: he is simply altering the length of his stride, not the speed at which he is moving. Tempo and speed are often mistaken for the same thing.

When you learn to ride a horse, it takes a while to discover the natural tempo of each animal. If you watch freestyle dressage, the rider has found music to suit the natural tempo of the horse to make the movements easier for him.


This is the horse’s mph – how fast he is moving. The trot is faster than the walk, the canter is faster than the trot. (Except at the higher levels of dressage.) Don’t mistake speed for tempo.

I can’t tell you how badly I wish someone had told me about these fundamentals when I first began to learn to ride a horse! It will save you a lot of later problems if you take the time to grasp the importance of a relaxed horse which moves with regularity right from the start.

Sit Safely in the Saddle When You Learn to Ride a Horse

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Your first horseback lessons will be on a sensible horse, as the barn will want you to have a good time and come back.

But if you’re a little apprehensive when you first learn to ride a horse – however quiet your mount is alleged to be – here are some riding tips to help you feel more secure.

1. Push your heels slightly below the balls of your feet, without becoming rigid. This will help you sit deeper and stay anchored in the saddle.

Later on, as you move up through the gaits, this will allow your ankles to become ’shock absorbers’ to keep your legs quiet against the horse’s sides.

2. When the horse moves forward, you’ll feel an urge to lean forwards and hunch over to keep your balance, but in fact you’re much safer when you sit up.

So think of sitting in such a way that if someone suddenly took the horse out from under you, you’d be standing straight, in perfect balance, on the ground.

3. Here’s an exercise to do before you get on the horse, which shows the value of sitting up in the saddle.

Stand facing a partner, both with arms a little outstretched. Each of you should hook the fingers of both your hands tightly over the other’s fingers. Then tell your partner to pull hard.

What happens? You get yanked forwards and off balance by your partner, who is the horse tugging on the reins in your hands.

Now plant your body firmly, with a straight back and slightly bent elbows. This time when your ‘horse’ pulls on you, you stay in position. Sit like this when riding and the horse cannot pull you out of the saddle.

Use these tips when you ride and you’ll feel more secure during those early riding lessons.