Do you ever get stuck in your riding and feel like you are going nowhere? Perhaps even back peddling? Maybe you try to make a change and your actions are too strong and it creates resistance. When that doesn’t work you try the other extreme - you do nothing and make no progress. We’ve all been there. Sometimes the blocks are mechanical and you need lessons to learn new technique. Other times, it’s mental and you have a fear or mental block preventing you from success. Mine was the later, I had a mental block about cantering my green four year old dutch warmblood.
I am not sure when I developed my canter phobia. Maybe it was the day I purchased her and the owner said “Be careful, she’s going to be a bucker”. Or maybe it was the times in my childhood I rode naughty ponies that would bolt back to the barn. Or the ponies that I jumped that bucked like heck on the other side of the fence, or maybe it was the downhill coop I popped off on at my Pony Club C-2 rating because I wasn’t really on my leg and did have the abdominal strength to sit up on the other side. Regardless, for some reason I had a deep seated fear of teaching the canter to my four year old Dutch Warmblood.
I procrastinated cantering for quite some time, and truthfully moving from New York to North Carolina did take a chunk out of my riding time, but she turned four in July and by then it was way past the time to start cantering. When I started our canter work she threw some big bucks into the mix, but it was mostly okay and what I expected. The following day after our first canter I had a great ride with her with cantering multiple twenty meter circles in each direction with ease and no drama. Then it rapidly all went down hill. Like all good things with horses, the honeymoon phase ended and for the first time ever she actually said no. and I said yes, and a battle ensued. Then we had a difficult lesson with my trainer where she decided cantering was not for her anymore. It felt like an eternity to get her to go left, just at the trot, without bucking or kicking out. And then the bucking and kicking out manifested in her canter work….she would canter three or four strides and then throw a buck and kick out.
I knew that help was needed for my canter phobia. There are two types of riding lessons. The first, is the type you look forward to because you have all your strawberries together and you are confident and ready and aren’t going to make a fool of yourself while you learn how to advance your riding. The second, is when your strawberries are not together and you know it’s going to be an ugly mess that will challenge your confidence and you will be asked to do HARD and difficult things and you won’t be able to back down, say no, or walk away. You will sweat a lot and might even cry. I knew this lesson was going to be the latter.
I was so nervous at my next lesson that it started out rough simply because my horse could feel my tension. You know that awkward moment when you’re riding around waiting for your trainer to arrive and the only thing you can think to yourself is “Am I going to get bucked off today, and how am I going to ride two more horses and teach lessons tonight if I get bucked off?” My trainer kept telling me in my canter transitions that I “Had to want it”, but I really only wanted in my head, and as much as I would ask for the canter, I only followed through with half-hearted leg aids, so I didn’t really want it. I mean...I wanted it...but I was scared of the buck on the other side. That’s why our canter departs were getting messy. She would canter three or four strides and kick out and I would get fearful and pull back.
What is the best solution when you are having fear issues? I was put back on the lunge line in my next lesson to take steering out of the equation (so I couldn’t pull back when she bucked or kicked out) and it helped my confidence level grow tremendously. In between my lessons on Thursday and Monday I sat down and opened Denny Emerson’s book, “How Good Riders Get Good.” I knew that I needed some inspiration to fix my canter phobia. I found this quote by Callan Solem that helped. She says, "Focus on the little things that help you succeed, and try not to be overwhelmed by how far you have to go. Don't think something is going wrong because riding is not easy for you. Focus on getting one percent better every day: In a little more than three months, you could be 100 percent improved!”
The length of time between my first lesson with many bucks and my successful confidence growing canter lesson was just five days, two of which my horse had off. By the end of the week we were cantering independently. What did I learn? I absolutely cannot pull back to steer. In order to canter her I had to let go, balance in a half-seat, and ask with only gentle reminders using an opening rein. My hands also have to be limp. I can’t squeeze my hands onto the rein or that will make her tense. My hands must feel like they are heavy and tired from carrying too many bags of grain.
Less than a week and a half of riding and a shot of confidence later we were cantering around the hayfield. To go from being completely unsuccessful and feeling like a failure to finding success is what makes riding so rewarding. So, the next time you feel discouraged, please take heart and realize this too shall pass and it’s only a moment in time.