The Benefits of Cantering Round and Round the Ring

canter long

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

 

Or straight on the trail! If your horse is safe and the trail is suited for a longer canter, by all means, try this in the great outdoors.

There is no greater feeling of cantering on – and on, and on. Although you probably ride the canter regularly in your daily rides, there is something different about “living in” (an expression I first heard from Robert Dover) canter until it becomes normal – and effortless.

Just like the other gaits, the canter offers both the horse and the rider many learning experiences. Although we often ride the three-beat gait during any given ride, chances are that you’re in and out of it in less than a minute. Because even just one minute of consistent canter seems like an awfully long time when you aren’t used to it!

So here is something to practice: if you think your horse is fit enough, go ahead and give this a try. After an adequate warm-up, head into the canter. And don’t stop. You can even time it with a watch. Go long enough to start to find the benefits below, but not so long that you’ll run your horse into the ground.

If your horse loses balance and falls out (without you asking for the downward transition), calmly get your balance, put the trot back together, find your good trot rhythm, and head off into the canter once more. You can change leads through a simple change (through walk or trot) or flying change. Just be sure to pick up the new lead and continue on as if nothing happened.

Start with one minute in canter. Then as you and your horse get fitter over the next few weeks, go to two minutes non-stop, then three. As with anything else in riding, the more you canter, the more effortless it becomes.

As you and your horse continue along, you will both strengthen and let go of tension. But there are many more benefits you will discover.

Balance and Coordination

Many horses don’t expect to maintain the canter for very long. For that very reason, they learn to disengage in the hind end after several strides and get longer and longer and… trot!

If you work at maintaining the canter, the horse learns that he should stay active in the hind end in order to feel better balanced. He’ll learn to respond better to your seat and leg aids. He’ll develop that “oomph” that he needs to keep going.

A longer canter will also give your body a chance to develop balance. You’ll negotiate through the energy surges and drops from your horse. Your core muscles will work longer and develop their own intricate contractions and releases that will help your body stay in the saddle and maneuver within the horse’s movement.

As you move around the arena, you will go from straight lines to curves to turns and circles. Both of you will strengthen in your ability to work through these changes of balance if you just give yourself enough time to adapt.

Conditioning

When the horse canters, his breathing rhythm ties into the rhythm of the strides. Cantering long term develops the lungs and muscles, making for a workout that is quite different from the walk or trot.

Same goes for the rider. If you canter long enough, you get a nice core workout that you might feel the next day!

Breath Development

Since the horse can only breathe with the canter strides, he will learn to breathe every step. Some horses puff in rhythm with the strides – those horses have already learned to regulate their breath according to the movement.

You might notice your own improvement in breathing as well. Many riders can easily hold their breath for the duration of a few canter circles. But even at just one minute, your body needs to finally let go and take a breath! You will be forced to breathe if you can maintain the canter long enough. Once you know how to breathe, you will have an easier time breathing at any gait.

Equalizer

The horse that speeds up in the canter will have enough time to settle down and discover that he’ll run out of steam if he keeps rushing. He’ll likely soften through the body, slow a bit in rhythm, and find a happy place where he can just keep going, but at a nice controlled pace.

The horse that likes to quit will learn that he has to give a little more – and even more. Soon enough, he’ll get used to giving more and will develop the balance and coordination needed to keep going.

Suppleness

Once the horse settles in the canter rhythm, his topline muscles will find a release and he’ll develop a better swing within the movement. At the end of the canter session, you might discover that his back loosens in the trot as well. His longitudinal suppleness will develop seemingly on its own.

You will also benefit. Many of us freeze up at the idea of cantering (and not even know it). If you put your body in the situation, and keep it there for some time, your tension will slowly dissipate, especially as your muscles tire. Once the release happens, your body can work on maintaining better posture over the long term.

Of course, don’t overdo it. Keep your horse’s current fitness level in mind. If you do go for a whole minute, be sure to give your horse a nice walk break afterward so he can catch his breath. If your horse is fitter than that, find the “just enough challenge” point without pushing him beyond his ability. Always err on the side of caution when doing something new or difficult.

Do you canter for extended periods? If you gave this a try, let us know how it went in the comments below.

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Read more about the canter:3d Book 2

 

7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition: The canter departure doesn’t have to resemble a rocket launch.

Use The “Canter-Trot” To Truly Engage the Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement – but that is nothing further than the truth!

How the “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: How you can develop a calm and balanced canter transition from the trot. 

Try This To Feel “Forward”: The concept of “forward” in horseback riding is a difficult one to explain, to feel and to be able to reproduce consistently.

Horsey Word(s) of the Week: Horses For Courses

 

13 Reasons Why You Should Be A Barn Brat

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barn brat

Grass, trees, gorgeous fence line, and one beautiful horse. Let’s be barn brats!

 

It’s time we take back the term “barn brat”! This applies to you if you are 5 years old, or 50 (or more!).

If you are one of those people who spends hours at the barn, eagerly taking in all things horse, this one is for you. Not only is time spent at the barn well spent, but here are 13 reasons why barn bratting is good for us – and more importantly – makes us better not only as equestrians, but as all-around humans.

– Exercise

From grooming, to carrying feed bags, to walking between paddocks – you get a full body, cross-fit type of workout. It’s completely organic. You don’t have to count reps or buy any equipment. All you have to do is get things done! And voila! Your body moves and you feel better.

– Oxygen

Fresh air – the country type of air that invigorates and leaves you pleasantly drained at the end of the day. For those of us who sit still whether in school or at work, the barn represents a chance to not only move but also to breathe. And if you get on the horse and go for a ride, you might be huffing and puffing in no time.

– Natural Setting

Speaking of which – the natural beauty of most barn properties is another enriching aspect to our daily lives. Whether the barn is situated on rolling hills lined with oak board fencing, or forested trails beckoning exploration (or both), the barn provides us access to uneven ground, green grass, gorgeous trees and the smell of the great outdoors. The barn gives us the opportunity to trade off concrete sidewalks and wall-to-wall houses even if for only a few brief hours.

– Responsibility

One thing you learn at the barn is that you have to do what you have to do, especially if there is no one else around to do it for you. The horses rely on you for feed, water, turn out, turn in and even exercise. Their needs can’t be shoved to the side of a desk even if you are sick or tired or if it’s too cold outside. You get up and go no matter what because they rely on you. And that is all.

– Social Skills

Barn brats tend to become socially adept even if they aren’t naturally outgoing. When you spend time with fellow horse lovers, you can’t help but to interact with the people who are there with you. The extra perk is that horse lovers come from all backgrounds, and in all sizes and ages. The barn is one of the few places that children can interact with adults on a mutually respectful and respected level.

– Challenges

Things don’t always go right/as planned/well at the barn. Sometimes, you have to go through a situation that you’d rather avoid altogether. But the one thing you learn is that you can face those difficult times and even overcome them when necessary. And that makes you a stronger person in the long run.

– Being A Student

Hanging out at the barn sets you up to become a lifelong learner. Not only will you continually want to improve your riding skills, but you will likely appreciate how you can learn something from everyone. Thanks to the horses’ individual personalities and abilities, everyone will have different experiences to share and learn from. Even if you don’t take formal lessons, I would bet that you will learn new things on a regular basis just by being at the barn.

– Being A Leader

Not only will you value being a learner, but you will also invariably become a leader in no time. Horses respond best to confidence. Being able to communicate clearly and effectively are skills you will quickly develop to keep not only yourself safe, but also your horse. Hang around regularly, and you might find yourself teaching others what you know.

– Empathy for Animals

This is almost a given, but you’d be surprised at how much your natural inclinations will be developed. You will be able to understand horse language, and interpret horse-to-horse communication. You might even become good enough to know what they say to you! More importantly, putting yourself into another’s “hooves” will make you better able to do the same with fellow human beings in any life situation.

– Team Work

Working together becomes a habit when you hang out at the barn. Even if you don’t know the other person, you will find yourself gravitating toward helping each other, especially when it really matters. Four hands are better than two, two heads are better than one, and two people riding one horse is the best!

– Riding Skills

Riding is a full-body, intricate workout that involves the coordination of the core and body parts you didn’t even know existed until you sat on a horse. It does get easier over time, but this is one of those sports that has layers of learning and never-ending self-improvement. Just when you think you got it, the next needed skill surfaces and you’re on a new learning path all over again.

– Confidence

When you first hang out at the barn, your self-confidence might drop considerably until you know what to do and how things work. Certainly, the activities relating to horses and horse-keeping are sport-specific and not particularly common out in the “real world”. Conversely, as you become adept at everything including riding, you become more confident not only at the barn, but also in your human interactions.

– Real Life (vs Screen Life)

I saved this one for last because of its pervasiveness in our smart-phone society. Everywhere you look, you see people hunched over their phones with thumbs flying.

Except at the barn.

Granted, when we are standing around, we might check for texts and whatnot, but interacting with horses requires our full attention. The pure physicality of even walking beside a horse as you bring him in to the barn, and obviously when you ride, requires your absolute attention. Being around horses is the one place that keeps us living “in the present”. There is no other way.

Well, as it turns out, barn bratting is not so bad, and maybe even better than you might think! There must be so many other reasons why it’s good to spend hours and hours at the barn. Write them in the comments below.

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What Is A Neck Bend? And What To Do About It.

straight neck

Well positioned neck on a turn. Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Have you seen a horse doing the neck bend? Maybe you do it unintentionally, thinking that it “feels right”.

On a turn, you “bend’ the horse, and the horse’s neck comes far to the inside. The body continues on the same original arc, but you’ve got that head and neck pointing in the direction you want to go!

Sometimes, the horse’s body actually drifts out even though the neck is pointing in. Other times, the horse takes a tight turn to the inside, almost stumbling over his front legs because of the sudden movement.

Neck Bend 

The neck bend looks exactly as it sounds. The rider goes to bend the horse, and instead of achieving a tail-to-head arc through the body, only the neck juts to the inside. It looks almost like the neck comes off the body and does its own thing, regardless of what the rest of the horse is doing.

It might be caused by the rider who is pulling the neck in with the inside rein, or it might be caused by the overly one-sided horse who prefers to carry his neck to one side of the body. If you feel carefully, you might notice the outside rein getting longer and the inside hand pulling farther back.

The neck bend causes the horse to be imbalanced. No matter which movement he performs, his neck is essentially taken out of the equation and the horse moves out of straightness. Crookedness can cause many problems over the long-term, from misbehavior to soundness concerns.

Needless to say, all horses and riders have a stiffer and a more supple side. We work diligently on developing both sides equally in effort to become truly ambidextrous in the long run.

True Bend

True bend happens through the whole body. The hind end has a slight inclination to the inside, the rib cage is actually lifted off the inside leg, and the whole front end – from withers forward, not just the neck – is correspondingly pointed to the inside. Some people describe a good bend as a “banana curve”, which gives us a good image to keep in mind (although no horse can really bend to that degree).

“Bend” is one of those constantly challenging basics of riding, no matter what level you ride at and the experience of your horse. Bend allows the horse to move in balance around turns. Proper body positioning encourages adequate weight-bearing of the inside hind leg, freedom of movement and swinging through the back. A lateral bend encourages (and allows) longitudinal flexion – the lifting of the back that results in “rounding” and better weight carriage of both the horse and the rider.

From Neck Bend to True Bend

1. Straighten the neck.

I know this sounds counter-intuitive. You want to bend so the neck should be bent, right? Well, not exactly. Make sure that the neck comes out of the shoulders naturally.  Use your outside rein to support the neck. If the horse wants to take his neck to the inside, use a resisting (not pulling backward) neck rein aid to prevent him from pulling in.

In contrast, if you find yourself pulling his neck in with your inside rein, stop! Even out your reins and start working on a nice neck rein to doing the talking.

2. Point your body into the turn.

Starting at your seat, position yourself so that your whole body is looking just about a quarter of a circle ahead on your circle. Your torso should be on top of your seat (not collapsing/leaning in or out). Your shoulders will be also pointing in the direction of the turn – not too much but also not too little. Your head should look natural – about 1/4 of a turn ahead – don’t crank your own neck to the middle of the circle!

3. Use your inside seat and leg.

Start the horse’s body bend with your weight on the inside seat bone and your inside leg at the girth. You can pulse your inside leg in rhythm with the horse’s strides rather than keeping one even pressure through several strides. If necessary, you can let the horse drift out a bit until he understands that you want him to take more weight on the inside hind leg. This should help him move his rib cage slightly away from your inside leg.

4. Use your outside leg.

The outside leg asks the horse’s hip to come to the inside. Position this leg behind the girth. This leg also prevents the horse’s hips from drifting out too far.

5. Use the inside/outside reins.

The inside rein is responsible only for the horse’s flexion through the jaw. Use a direct rein pressure on the inside rein until you see just the corner of the inside eye and no more. The outside rein is the neck rein. It should indicate the direction of the turn and act as the barrier that prevents the horse from stepping out too far.

Start with a mild bend and work toward a deeper bend over time.

Developing a true bend on a 20-meter circle is hard enough for a stiff horse and rider. So start there, and work on achieving and then maintaining the bend over the whole circle. As you both get stronger and more evenly supple, make the circle smaller in increments. 15-meter and 10-meter circles require progressively deeper bends. In all cases, make sure it’s not just your horse’s neck that is coming in but that there is a nice arc through the whole body.

It takes years for both the horse and rider to become truly supple on both sides. Every time you add a new movement, you will likely need to revisit the bend within that movement. But don’t despair – just keep working on it at all times and be aware of that dreaded neck bend!

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Ready? Steady! (Or How To Ride Calmly and With Consistency): Riding smoothly through transitions left and right, up and down while maintaining a steady rhythm and impulsion, outline and self-carriage is nothing to be scoffed at!

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Horsey Word of the Week: Conformation

walking away

Walking away to show hind end conformation. Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

 

Conformation – noun

Definition: The shape or proportionate dimensions especially of an animal.

_____________

When you start to really get into horses, you begin to realize that conformation (not conf-I-rmation, which is completely a different topic) is a subject that is most important to horses and their people.

Let’s face it – the horse’s entire future is dictated by how its body is put together. Good breeders over the centuries have considered conformation as one of the critical factors in stallion and mare approval. Horse shows everywhere have conformation and movement classes designed to validate and reward young horses that are built to excel in their discipline and stay sound. Take an equine course and you will likely have to learn all about not only the horse parts and names, but also the common conformation faults.

Speaking of which, when it comes down to it, most horses are not built to the ideal standards. One might have a club foot, another might have a long back. One might be sickle-hocked while another is camped out. There are so many possible variations of not-so-perfect that you might initially be a little overwhelmed by it all.

The trick is to know the horse’s strengths and weaknesses, and what needs to be done to compensate for or support that area of need. Aye, there’s the rub. 

And so we set off on a lifetime of learning – from the science of it (identification and understanding), to the practice of it (riding). We figure out how to solve the specific problems – and believe me, every horse is different – through riding, shoeing, veterinary and medical care, and whatever else is needed to help the horse be happy, safe and exercised over the long term.

Some people say that conformation is not as important as other traits such as temperament, rideability and level of education. I think the key is to first of all, analyze the horse’s conformation as it relates to the kind of riding you want to do, and then, take into account everything else. 

It is quite possible to pick a horse based on his training level, for example, knowing full well that you will always have to engage his hind end to compensate for his long back. Or maybe you will do best with a short-coupled horse that can turn on a dime despite the fact that he might be a little higher energy than you were looking for. 

In any case, knowing about conformation is almost as important as knowing how to ride. One informs the other, and the more we know about both, the more we can do well by our equine friends.

How does conformation affect your horse and riding? Tell us in the comments below.

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More Words of the Week:

Ground Work

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Gallop