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Learning to Canter: 5 Mistakes Riders Make

The canter is by far my favorite gait when horseback riding. It is smooth, it is fast and it is relaxing. If you haven’t cantered before, think of the motion of a rocking horse, they really are quite similar. But it can also be a bit scary when you try to canter for the first time. It’s faster than anything else you have tried before and that fear of falling tends to flare its ugly head. But I promise it’s worth the risk.

If you are looking to up your skill and progress to the next gait, there are a few things you need to know to have fun with the challenge and reduce your risk of getting overwhelmed. Specifically, it may help to know the common mistakes new riders are likely to make when learning to canter.

Squeezing With Your Calves

When you’re going faster than you have on horseback before, it’s natural to get tense and hold on for dear life- but make sure you aren’t holding on with your calves. If you squeeze your horse with your calves, they may think you want them to go faster! You might even end up experiencing your very first gallop on accident. (While a gallop does provide a feeling of exhilaration and freedom, I do not recommend you get your first taste by accident!)

Instead of squeezing with your calves, make sure your weight is rooted deeply in the saddle and hold on with your thighs.

A rider learning to canter on a chestnut horse
A rider learning to canter on a chestnut horse

Pulling on the Reins

When you are transitioning to a canter from a trot, some riders will start pulling on the reins. This is very confusing to your horse. Your legs and voice are urging them forwards, but your hands are saying stop.

In my experience, this seems to happen because as a horse enters a canter, its head comes up and the reigns become looser. This is a natural movement for horses that aren’t strong enough to be very collected, and is a result of normal horse anatomy. As a response, the rider leans back and pulls the reins to try and maintain contact with the horse’s mouth. Preventing this reaction can be accomplished by preparing yourself before transitions and by practice.

Before you urge your horse to increase its speed, shorten your reins and make sure you have firm contact with its mouth. Don’t shorten them enough to pull or hurt the horse’s mouth, but instead shorten them just enough to make up for the slack once you transition to a canter.

Pointing Your Heels Up

When you canter, you still need to keep your heels down. When you are learning a new skill, it can be hard to remember such a little detail as your heels. When I first learned to ride a horse, every 5 or 6 strides I would hear “heels down” sing out across the arena from my riding instructor! But don’t worry, it does eventually become second nature. It just takes practice.

Although you hear people frequently telling you to keep your heels down, do you know why it is important? There are 3 main reasons.

  1. To keep your feet from slipping through your stirrups. If your heels are pointing down, they are much less likely to get caught in your stirrups and cause you to be dragged by your horse if you fall off.
  2. To keep your horse comfortable and calm. The second reason to keep your heels down at a canter is because if your heels are up, they are digging into your horse and you are also likely holding on with your calves. This will probably result in you going a touch faster than you wanted.
  3. To help you ride better. Pointing your heels down also plants you more firmly in the seat which will be more comfortable for both you and your horse. It will also give you better balance and reduces the risk of you falling from the saddle.

Are several strategies to help prevent your heels from pointing up as you learn to canter

  • Check your heels every 10 or 15 strides and make a deliberate effort to point them downwards again
  • Have someone with you and ask them to tell you if you stop pointing your heels downwards
  • If you don’t have anyone that can come out with you, take a video of yourself riding and check your riding form.

Everyone has to practice keeping their heels down. One day after I had been riding for 5 years, I was practicing a new skill and, even then, across the arena, I heard my coach sing-song calling to me: “heels down!”. After all those years I felt a bit silly for missing such a basic skill. But we all make mistakes, and it is important to make sure we are always working on our basic riding skills.

Leaning forward

Leaning forward as you are learning the canter is a common mistake that can cause serious injury. There are lots of reasons that may cause you to lean forwards in the saddle.

Here’s what a rider leaning forward at the canter tells me:

  • Your reins are too short and you are leaning forwards to stop from pulling on the mouth.
  • You’re scared and you leaning onto the horse’s neck to hold onto the mane.
  • You lost balance and you were thrown forward.

Regardless of the reason, it can cause you to lose your balance and fall from your horse. Leaning forward can also be a cue for horses to increase their speed- but a sudden increase in speed can also cause you to fall!


Your posture is important in any gait. At a canter, it holds you in your seat and ensures you aren’t hurting your horse’s back. If you get on your horse, roll your shoulders forward, and simply bounce around in the saddle, your horse will be very uncomfortable.

Instead, ensure you are sitting in the correct riding position. The ideal riding position for a canter is to be perfectly straight. Yes, you will need to rock your hips a bit, but your shoulders should never move. The best description I received for the correct riding position was to imagine that a rod was going through my shoulder, running straight down my back, through my hip, and finally into my heels. This position is the correct seat for a walk, trot, or canter.

Final thoughts on Mistakes Riders Make when Learning to Canter

These are just a few of the common mistakes that new riders make when learning to canter. By following these tips, you can reduce your risk of injury and have a much more enjoyable experience. Click here for more advice on learning to ride the canter with confidence.

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