Cantering A Horse: What To Do And Not Do

December 8, 2022
Brown Horse Cantering

Cantering a horse is a fantastic feeling – it avoids the bouncing of a trot but has a more relaxed feel that tilting headlong at a gallop. Of all the gaits, the canter is my favorite, and it’s very rewarding once you get used to it.

Cantering is a smooth three-beat gait different from the bouncing motion of the trot. A small change in your seat enables you to move with your cantering horse instead of working against them. Keeping some flex in your hip instead of staying stiff allows the canter to be sustained.

People can be understandably nervous about going into a canter. New riders worry about the increase in speed, how to keep their seat, and the correct way to canter safely. We’ll go through learning to canter and what to do and not do to give you a good cantering experience.

How Do You Properly Canter A Horse?

Silhouette of Female Horse Rider Cantering on the Sandy Beach at Sunset

Once your horse is in a steady trot and is properly warmed up, you can signal for her to go into a canter. If you’ve been doing a posting trot, you’ll need to settle back into the saddle before you prepare to move into a canter.

The most common way to begin the transition to a canter is to shift your seat slightly backward while keeping your hips loose so you can move with the rhythm of the horse’s body. Keep your weight resting on your sit bones, and don’t lean back in the saddle.

As you approach the curve of the arena, move your outside leg a little back, and squeeze your horse’s flanks with the inside-facing leg. For most horses, this should signal that it’s time for them to speed up.

One trick with horses is to think of the gait you want. Thinking canter as you prepare is a standard tip my instructors gave me when I was learning to ride.

I did encounter a pony trained on a ranch, and her cue to move to a canter was a slight flick of the looped reins, but she was the only pony I had to signal that way.

Two important things will help you keep your canter smooth and encourage your horse to stay in a canter. These are your seat, i.e. the way you sit and move in the saddle, and your shoulders. Keeping your upper body relaxed but upright is essential to maintaining a good seat in a canter.

How Do You Not Bounce In A Canter?

While cantering is a much more fluid, circular movement than a trot, some riders struggle to get a good deep seat and avoid bouncing in the saddle.

You get a good seat by loosening your hips and letting them relax. If you tighten your thighs and body so that it feels like you’re gripping the saddle to stay on, your seat will feel very bouncy and uncomfortable

Aim to keep your body controlled but relaxed so you can move with your horse’s motion. By stiffening up, you signal your horse to fall back into a trot.

What To Do

  • Move in sync with your horse; usually, a slight backward circular rhythm
  • Keep both sit bones in the saddle
  • Have a strong core without being tense; let the muscles contract and relax with the motion
  • Keep your upper body still, and don’t drive the canter with your shoulders
  • Allow your hips to flex and move with your horse; the movement comes from your hips and lower spine, not your back and upper body.
  • Sink into the seat; allow your joints to be soft rather than stiff

What Not To Do

  • Tighten your grip with your legs and seat
  • Make your body too tense by bracing your core
  • Try to stay still in the saddle and not move
  • Lock your hips
  • Drive the canter by rocking your upper body back and forth
  • Move out of sync with your horse’s cantering rhythm
  • Move your hands higher
  • Grip the reins too tightly — this signals your horse to slow down

How Do You Keep Your Upper Body In Canter?

One of the things many riders do when they are nervous about cantering is try to drive the canter with their upper bodies. You will see this as rocking or sometimes posting motion of the upper body and shoulders.

Unfortunately, driving with the upper body like this does not make your horse canter any faster, but it does make your seat less secure. Your upper body tenses up, and you will likely be out of sync with your horse’s movements.

Keep upright but relaxed, and keep your movement in the hips rather than the upper body. Keep your shoulders still and level.

The secret of a good upper body position in the canter is to have a strong, well-developed core, where the position is maintained from hip strength rather than the back muscles. The muscles of your core shouldn’t be stiff but rather relax and contract naturally with your horse’s movement.

Allow your legs to relax so that you are not gripping the saddle with your thighs. A good exercise to improve the depth of your seat is to the rider without stirrups and let your legs hang. You can return to walking and trotting on a lunge for this exercise as you develop a better seat.

What To Do To Correct Upper Body Movement

Suppose you’ve developed a habit of pumping or rocking your upper body while cantering. In that case, you can practice developing upper body stillness while allowing the hips to flex with an at-home exercise.

Use a stability ball that is the correct size to allow you to sit on it comfortably, keeping your feet flat on the ground. It will be helpful if you have a mirror that will allow you to see your position.

Imagine sitting on your horse, adjusting your hip angle until the seat feels correct. If you have a strap or narrow band you can fix to an object that will mimic the height of your reins; you can add to this exercise, adjusting where you keep your hands while cantering.

Once you have found the correct position to keep your back upright and not bowed forward or arched, you can emulate a small, flexing rock with your hips while keeping your upper body still.

What Do You Do With Your Legs When Cantering?

Cantering horse legs close up during show

When you want to signal your horse into a canter, each leg will do something different to prepare them to change its gait. The shift in your seat is your first and biggest signal – by moving back a little and sitting upright and still, you signal the intent.

You use your legs to keep your horse in line as she steps into a canter, guiding so that her front doesn’t turn in or her hindquarters swing out.

Move your outside leg until it is slightly behind the girth, swinging back from the knee – not moving the entire leg.

Keep the inside leg on the girth, and apply pressure. Within a few strides, squeeze gently with the outside leg. The squeezing pressure comes from the calf and not the thighs. You shouldn’t need a hard squeeze to signal your horse to canter.

Never kick your horse to get them to canter.

Your legs should stay long and relaxed when cantering. Gripping with your thigh muscles will push you a little out of the saddle and make your seat less secure. You want your heels to sink lower than your toes and not rise.

Exercises To Improve Leg Position In Canter

The ideal position for your leg is to hang directly under your body – you don’t want your legs too far forward or back. Keeping your heels in line with your hips will also improve your seat while cantering.

If your legs swing forward or back, they will affect your upper body, much like a pendulum. For example, if your legs are too far forward, your upper body will fall backward to compensate. Since you want a still, upright body, you will need your legs to stay long and under you.

Keep constant, light contact, and don’t let your legs fly away from your horse’s sides or grip tightly. If you find that cantering throws you out of a stable seat, practice improving leg positions by transitioning from a walk to a posting trot.

Trot with a standard rise and fall; body tilted slightly forward; then, when you’re ready to walk again, settle back into the saddle and sit in a more upright position. This change in seat and posture will signal your horse without you relying on using the reins.

Once you have improved your seat, practice cantering without stirrups. Cross the stirrups over your pommel, and concentrate on keeping an extended leg with the heel pressed down once they are out the way. Practice a walk, move on to a trot, then a canter while maintaining the correct seat.

How Do I Stop Pumping My Arm At Canter?

Keep control over what your hands and arms are doing during the canter. You need to maintain steady contact with your horse while holding the reins. As your horse moves, its head will bob a little, and your hands will also move.

As you transition into your canter, you will want to allow a little more give on the inside rein. The softening of your hand will also indicate what side your horse will lead with.

For example, if you want a left-lead canter – where the left side of the body advances before the right – you want a softer left rain as you transition. This softness allows your horse’s left hind leg to pick up to lead.

Keep your shoulders still while the hips move in a slight circular motion with your horse’s gait. As your horse moves, its head will go down and up slightly, and you need your elbows to follow that motion. Don’t keep your elbows stiff, pulling at your horse’s head.

This motion means your elbows will straighten and bend a little with the rhythm of your horse’s head to maintain steady contact. Without this give, you’ll constantly be jerking and releasing your horse’s head.

How Do You Control A Horse In Canter?

If you’re nervous that your horse will get away from you in a canter, you can communicate this fear to your horse because your body stiffens up, and you tighten your grip on the rein, giving him contrasting signals.

To control a canter, you must maintain that deep, flexible seat and stay very relaxed. By relaxing, you will help your horse settle into a steady canter.

Don’t haul on the reins to control the canter or pull at your horse’s mouth. Instead, gently tighten the circle you are rising in, slowing him down. Constant pressure on a horse’s bit makes them used to the pressure, so soften your grip on the reins.

Use your seat to control speed, rather than relying on the reins


Teenager girl riding galloping bay horse in winter at the field near the village

Cantering a horse will become much more enjoyable when you have a good seat that moves in a slight circular motion in sync with your horse’s movements. Keep your leg long, heels pressed down and in line with your hips, and hold your upper body still and upright.

Don’t try gripping with your legs, pump your upper body, or arch and bow your back when cantering. A deep seat with open, flexible hips will allow you to move with your horse while maintaining good posture.



I'm Bo, the owner of Smarter Horse. Helping horses be smarter by educating their people.  To find out more about me, click here

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