Top ten cantering no-nos–and how to fix them!
It’s sort of depressing to list all the things you can mess up in the canter, but it’s a good way to become aware of things you might not realize you’re doing. As they say, recognizing that you’ve got a problem is the first step towards fixing it! Plus, after every mistake, I offer one possible way to work on improving.
1. Rocking your shoulders. As I mentioned in my first post about the canter seat, it’s very easy to let your shoulders or even your whole upper body rock back and forth as your horse rocks back and forth underneath you. However, if you do this, you get very out of balance and throw your horse off-balance too! Also, it makes it very difficult for you to do anything with the rest of your aids, as you’ve got nowhere from which to work.
A: Imagine a string pulling you up from the top of your head. Pretend you are a marionette puppet, and someone is constantly drawing you upward. As you stretch upward, you’ll automatically stop moving back and forth.
2. Swinging your lower leg. As riders try to rock their hips, oftentimes they get their lower legs in on the action too. Moving your lower leg creates lots of “noise” in your leg aids–it’s hard for your horse to know what you are actually asking and what is just you moving around too much!
A: Press your heel downward. Similar to problem one, if your heel is reaching downward it will make it naturally harder for your leg to move forward and backward.
3. Pinching with your knees. When you’ve got a wildly surging horse underneath you, it’s only natural to try to hold on wherever you can. And pinching with your knees seems like a good idea—until you realize that the only things it accomplishes is making you less secure in your seat and sometimes even making your horse go faster! Pinching with your knees makes it hard for your hips to move with the canter, which in turn throws you out of balance with your horse’s movement. Never a good thing.
A: Relax. Most people pinch with their knees because they aren’t relaxed in the saddle. Being nervous can cause tension, but so can trying too hard to stay deep in the saddle. Practice and experience, as well as few deep breaths, can help with nervousness. Remembering that a deep seat comes from your weight pushing into the saddle and not from your knees holding you there can help trying too hard. Read number 8 as well!
4. Driving with your hips. It’s true that you want your hips to move with your horse’s motion, but what sometimes happens, especially with slow horses, is that you start pumping your hips harder than they are being naturally moved. Trying to drive a horse faster by pushing your hips harder into his saddle usually just ends you up getting ahead of his rhythm, which in turn interferes with his consistency.
A: Open up your hips. If your horse is going too slow, rather than pushing harder just gently increase the size of the circle your hips are making. This naturally encourages your horse to lengthen his stride and cover more ground. And don’t forget to relax!
5. Waving your hands around. Your whole body is going up and down by at least six inches every stride. It’s such an easy thing for your hands to get a little left behind and find themselves flapping around.
A: Grab a little mane. In a perfect canter seat, your hands stay just above your horse’s withers—even as they rise and fall. To help you learn the feel of that, try grabbing just a little mane with your pinky fingers. The tug of the mane will help you move your hands down as your horse’s withers drop.
6. Raising your heels. Once more, you’re going to hear it—keep your heels down! (I told you you’d hear this a lot…). Sometimes your heels can come up if you’re pinching with your knees (see # 3) or if your seat isn’t deep enough (see #8).
A: Exaggerate the downward stretch. Remember than you are really supposed to put much of your weight on the ball of your foot in the stirrup—it’s supposed to drop down through your heels. If you really exaggerate the feeling of stretching your heels down and feeling your body weight sink into your heels, they will learn much faster to stay down and back where they’re supposed to be. Out of the saddle, practice standing with your heels hanging off the edge of stairs.
7. Tipping forward. People tip forward for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes when riders get nervous, they curl up; sometimes when they want their horses to go faster they lean forward; sometimes they just find it hard to stay back in the saddle. Unfortunately, none of these reasons are good. Remember the perfect seat has a straight line from the shoulders through the hips down to the heels.
A: Try leaning back. You’d be amazed—you feel like your practically lying down on your horse’s rump, and your trainer will say, “There you go! You’re straight!” Weird. But for some reason, many (but not all) people think they are farther back than they actually are. If you feel like you are leaning too far back, you’re probably getting close to vertical.
8. Perching on the saddle. “Perching” is where you are just tickling the top of the saddle rather than really getting your butt down and firm in the seat. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the saddle, like when you’re jumping, but for the basic canter seat it’s not good.
A: Imagine you are a big sack of potatoes. It sounds weird, but visualizing something big, heavy, and just plopped in the saddle can really help you sit deep. You don’t want to get all blobby, but think about letting all your weight move downward into the saddle and out your heels (which, of course, are nicely stretching downward.)
9. Rounding your shoulders. It’s like letting your heels come up. Just not allowed. Plus, it ruins your ability to do half-halts.
A: The whip exercise. If you take a dressage whip and put it behind your back and then hook your elbows over it and grab the reins, it actually makes it impossible to round your shoulders. Try riding five minutes every time like this—your shoulders will start to remember to stay back!
10. Doughy core. This is a favorite of my trainer. As you’re trying to let your hips swing freely, stay relaxed and deep in the saddle, and have your hands gently follow your horse’s head, you might find that your tummy muscles are getting all gooey. Unfortunately, you have to figure out how to let everything relax and move freely without losing the strength in your core. After all, it’s that strength on which you build everything else.
A: Think about pressing your tummy and back together. You want your muscles firm, but not rigid. If you compress your core, you strengthen it without losing its flexibility. You can try the “plank exercise” when you’re not riding. Get down on the floor in a push-up position. Your hips, shoulders and heels (again!) should be in one straight line. Hold this, feeling how you have to engage all your core muscles to stay straight. If you can hold this for a minute every day, your muscles will get stronger too.