In the history of all of the horses that I’ve owned, I’ve never cantered one before I purchased it. My first horse was a gift, so I didn’t meet her until after the deal was done. When I went to look at Ezhno the girth was too long, so TrainerM cantered him but I rode him out walk/trot to avoid any slippage. The day I tried Raglan I got on him and immediately recognized that he was on the edge of too-much-horse (and the last time I tried to canter too-much-horse during a test ride I had to run him into a wall, so…).
At some point I’ve developed a lot of anxiety when it comes to the canter. Maybe it’s because almost all of my falls have happened at the canter (including the one that sent me on a five year hiatus away from horses) or maybe it’s because I keep buying green horses with sloppy, unfinished gaits. Almost all of my nervous energy is centered around the transition into the canter—and my fear doesn’t show up on lesson horses.
When Ezhno came back from his extended stall rest at the beginning of the year, it was a long time before I cantered him again. Eventually TrainerM got fed up with my delicate psyche (#blessed to have trainers that know when to stop coddling) and made me do canter transitions for an entire lesson. I spent the next couple of days spamming trot to canter transitions until I killed my anxiety and I’ve been pretty okay ever since.
And yet, if you look closely you can still see signs of my baggage. Like that time that I rode Lily and Teeq and unconsciously picked up the canter for the first time over a cross rail so that I could try to avoid the trot to canter transition (a fact I only noticed when I was thinking back on it).
After TrainerA and I made concrete plans to check off Raglan’s “establish the canter” goal, a tiny part of myself spent the whole week playing negative scenarios out in vivid detail on the back of my eyelids every time I tried to fall asleep. What if he started bucking and I ate dirt? What if he threw me off of him and into a wall? What if I fell off and then his leg got caught in the reins and he broke it and then I had to put him down and on top of that I broke my spine so I could never ride ever ever ever again?
But a stronger part of me (the part built off of my experience with Ezhno) took over. I introduced him to trot poles to build extra balance, taught him to respect the word “easy”, installed trot to halt transitions, practiced an extended trot that I knew would turn into a canter, and drilled transitions on the lunge line.
When Friday finally rolled around, I was confident that we were ready. I told the little disasterrific voice in my head to shove it and then put him on the lunge line first thing in the morning.
His transitions on the lunge were quiet and non-eventful. I still had fifteen minutes left before TrainerA was due to show up, so I hopped aboard and warmed him up at the walk/trot. He was attentive but not overreactive. All the stars were aligning for us!
TrainerA, however, was feeling under the weather. The original plan was that she would get on Raglan and canter him first (just in case), then I would canter him afterwards. We talked things over and I harnessed all of my confidence and decided that so long as TrainerA was there to coach me, I didn’t need her to get on him. So I picked the trot back up, put him out on the wall, and about six steps later…
TrainerA: Annnnd go. Me: Now? What if I’m not ready? TrainerA: I’m ready.
TrainerA didn’t start taking video until I was already a few laps in, so she didn’t get the part where I shouted, “Holy damn, I bought a big horse!” It was like the arena shrunk three sizes! I was too busy marveling at the fact that I was actually cantering my horse to even try to sit his giant-ness, so I sort of just rattled around in the saddle for a while and then started giggling like a fool.
We botched the right lead (he’s super weak on that side, if he’s too worn down it’s very hard for him to get that lead through his back end). My two biggest fears were that I would over cue for the canter and he would freak out (I even took off my spurs because I’m a pansy) or that he would crossfire and I wouldn’t be able to feel it so he’d get mad and kick to fix it, but both of those things ended up being non-issues. I did the transitions without any leg at all, just a kissy noise, and it was very apparent when he was crossfiring.
It was wonderful. He got a lot of smooches and treats when we were done. 😊
And then, because I believe in killing fear with fire, I untacked, rode Ezhno for a bit, and then tacked Rags up again after TrainerA was gone. We did some more cantering. I even had a moment where I turned the corner, looked up, saw the long side of the arena stretched out in front of me, and was like “well, what if I just…” and boom, I gave a kiss and suddenly we were charging down the wall at Mach 10 because racehorse, remember? It was even more wonderful. I laughed a lot.
And so I gave him another break and then I rode him AGAIN. And this time we even got a proper right lead canter and everything! It was so exciting that I didn’t feel so much as an inkling of nerves.
I’ve incorporated a little bit of canter work into our rides since then and things are going great! Now that the moment has passed, I can look back at the first time I cantered him and recognize that most of my worries were more centered around the anticipation of the fear I thought I’d feel. When TrainerA didn’t give me time to build up that anticipation into real fear, everything went perfect.
So excited for all of the new possibilities this opens up for us during our rides!