The Rambling Rookie Tries the Canter
Command with Mixed Results
By Patty Czepiel Hayes
October, 1999, my friend and riding partner Jan Ebbets and I are
beginning our 16th or so riding lesson at Fox Meadow Farm at Smith
College. I am assigned to Yankee, a rather large, twenty-something
gelding, and Jan is to ride Beauty, a mare of unknown age, or at
least unknown to us. After warming up, we trot and turn around various
points on the rail, and then attempt to navigate a slalom course
of miniature orange cones. Our dressage instructor, Meri, keeps
a watchful eye. Since my turns aren't working very well, I try to
refine my signals to Yankee, using my heels, ankles, legs, hips,
pelvis, back, shoulders, head and eyes. (Not only must I remember
that I myself HAVE all of these body parts, but now I have to coordinate
them.) Jan is doing quite well on Beauty while I struggle with Yankee.
It's still a challenge for us to post in the trot, meanwhile keeping
our "eyes up" as Meri says. Novice riders tend to look down at the
horse, especially when things go wrong. One minor stumble by the
horse seems like the end of the world. The eyes-up instruction is
something we hear often from Meri. Not only is it essential for
balance, but the horse can sense which way the rider is looking
and reacts accordingly. I still have my doubts about Yankee's attentiveness
however. Maybe he's distracted by other horses. As Jan and Beauty
trot ahead of us, Yankee spends most of his energy trying to bite
the big rump in front of him. (Beauty's, not Jan's.)
Some time ago we learned about the age-old system of dividing up
the outdoor ring. There are letters marked on the rails at various
points. They don't spell anything in particular, and no one in the
sport really remembers what they mean anymore, according to Meri.
But you must know where they are because your instructor uses them
as indicators for your turns. So in addition to trying to post,
and steer, and balance, and do all the little things, we have to
look for those damn letters. It's sometimes difficult to hear the
instructor's voice, so I often seem to be yelling, "Did you say
B or P?" By then I've trotted past both and have missed the turn
Today we're working on improving our technique, trying to perfect
our posture and minimize our contact with the saddle as we post.
I feel myself gaining confidence. As we trot, Meri reminds us to
sit up straight. "Patty, do you feel yourself leaning forward? Right
now you're now on the launching pad," she observes.
Thirty minutes into this lesson, Meri instructs us to join her in
the center of the ring. Jan and I obediently halt the horses near
Meri, taking care not to crash into her. (Instructors frown upon
being run over.) We chat comfortably about our progress in the trot.
Without warning, the unspeakable happens. Meri speaks the "C" word.
It's time to canter.
Jan and I look at each other and laugh, the same kind of nervous
laughter you hear from people immediately before they jump out of
Meri describes the canter command. While in the walk or trot, the
rider must move one foot a little forward and the other backwards,
and with that the horse knows the rider wants to canter. (That's
it?) They might not listen right away, but that's how we start,
Meri says. And we must maintain our balance of course, staying lower
in the saddle than when we're trotting. (So we just move our feet
and sit there. How bad can this be?)
We assume the position while the horses are standing in place, just
to get the feel of it. There I sit, perfectly posed, not moving.
Yankee isn't moving either. So far, so good.
Meri reassures us, insisting we'll canter only for a few strides,
and tells us that these particular horses will probably stop on
their own before we know we've even started. She says cantering
is easier than trotting; it's not as bouncy and you don't have to
post in the saddle. (Hmm. Less work. This sounds doable.) Cantering
is a three-beat rhythm, trotting is two beats. And then there's
a left canter vs. a right canter … I tune out now because I'm already
overwhelmed and we haven't yet taken a step.
For whatever reason, I have to go first. My stomach is in knots.
Meri instructs me to trot to the other side of the ring, turn, and
then canter back. I take a deep breath and off I go. I trot, turn,
move my feet, and trot back. Nothing happens. It doesn't work, and
Yankee doesn't want to canter today, I think, so that's that. I
assume it's now Jan's turn but Meri makes me try again. She decides
to help out by running alongside Yankee to get him going. Before
doing so, she picks up a few orange cones to get them out of the
way. Off we go, Yankee and I trotting, and Meri running along side,
slightly behind Yankee.
We're trotting and then his stride changes. I'm terrified. My mind
races. Are we cantering? Is this cantering? It's all a blur. My
balance is gone. This CAN'T be cantering, I think. The front of
the horse seems to be moving downward, and the back of the horse
seems to be moving upward... Wait. This is bucking! HE'S BUCKING!!!
And he was.
My heart racing, I pull on the reins and Yankee halts. Meri laughs.
"You did it! You cantered."
"That's cantering? Wasn't that BUCKING!?" I ask, a little loudly,
and out of breath.
"Oh he did that too, but you stayed on!"
Meri is still laughing and I'm wondering where the humor is in this.
More alarmed than angry, I immediately decide my cantering days
I try to compose myself. I walk Yankee over to Jan and Beauty, and
wait for Meri to put the cones down near the rails. She's still
smiling. My heart is still pounding. I ask, "Um, WHY was he bucking?"
Meri laughs even harder. "He bucked because I was chasing him and
waving two orange cones."
Well I'm glad someone's having a good time.
"You know, you didn't draw one breath of air during all of that,"
she says. (That explains the blurred thoughts.) "And next time you
can grab some mane to help you balance." (Now she tells me.)
It's Jan's turn. To my great disappointment, I can't get Meri to
chase Jan and Beauty with the orange cones. Beauty trots, then canters.
Jan's face lights up like a Christmas tree, but I'm doubting she's
As I prepare for my second effort, somewhat against my will, Meri
asks if she should bring the cones again. I suggest a defibrillator
instead. (That's right, just keep laughing.)
The lesson ends after a few more uneventful trotting efforts, with
a little cantering thrown in. Back in the barn, safe and sound,
we debrief. We lie about how glad we are that we've finally cantered,
and then talk about how Meri has challenged us while keeping us
safe, even if we don't appreciate everything at the time. (Cones.)
And Meri talks about how our balance and control skills now come
in handy when something unexpected comes along. (Cones.)
As we put the horses away for the night and struggle with their
blankets (or pajamas as we like to call them), Jan and I plot how
to get out of cantering next time. We decide to beg for a trail
ride. Our first trail ride. Perfect. No cones, no rails, no letters,
no distractions. What could be simpler than a trail ride in the
great outdoors (okay the former state hospital grounds), at a nice
slow pace? It'll work. It has to work.