Canter with Confidence

Canter with Confidence, in less than 15 minutes a Day!

Cantering with your horse can be an exhilarating experience. There is nothing more enjoyable than a powerful, forward, bounding canter that is both comfortable to ride, and controllable for the rider. But, that type of canter requires that the rider be completely confident and relaxed, and forward thinking as well!

If you are at all fearful about the speed or extra “jump” in the more forward canter gait, it can be nerve wracking, and tension can start in your body even before you ask for the canter transition! Any mental tension or anticipation will cause your body to tighten up, which will result in the horse sensing the tension and potentially becoming worried. The result of that worry can be spooking, losing balance and falling out of the gait, which exaggerate the anxious feelings, resulting in a downward spiral of tension, anxiety and imbalance…

But, with the simple exercises below, you can train your body in the movement of the canter OFF the horse, so that when you get on the horse and ask for the canter, your body will automatically relax, find its own balance, and move comfortably with the horse because *your body* is already confident and conditioned in the balance and muscle movements required. This simple 15 minute workout will change the way your body behaves in the saddle, which will give you greater confidence in every gait, and especially in the canter.

Starting from the top…

Upper Body Warmup

Exercise #1: Nose circles

Starting with the neck, we want to mobilize all the joints so that we don’t hold tension in our necks while we ride. A rider with a tense neck will result in a horse with a tense neck, as that tension will transfer all the way down the rider’s arms, into the horse’s mouth. We’ll address that tension right from the top, by mobilizing the vertebrae in the neck and releasing tension in the muscles from the base of the skull to the shoulders.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Stand relaxed, with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft, and arms hanging comfortably at your sides.
  • Pretend that your nose is the big hand on a clock, and describe a circle around the face of the clock with your nose.
  • Make the circle one direction for about 30 seconds, and then change the direction for another 30 seconds.

What to expect: You may be surprised at how much tension you have been carrying around in your neck when you start this exercise! You may feel some “crunchiness” or hear some popping as you start this exercise. However, these should subside a bit as you continue the exercise.

Cautions and contraindications: If you feel sharp pain during this exercise, stop immediately and go see a licensed Doctor of Chiropractic. If you feel dizziness at any point in the circle, which can be fairly common, make your circles a little smaller to avoid the place that makes you dizzy. It is also recommended that you see a chiropractor to ensure that the dizziness is not due to a nerve impingement or subluxation in your cervical spine – a common problem, especially if you’ve ever fallen off a horse, been in a car accident, or taken even a slight blow to the head or neck.

Exercise #2: Shoulder circles

Our shoulders carry the weight of our worlds, and rarely receive much TLC. Especially if you have a job that requires you to sit and use a computer for any length of time, your shoulders are likely carrying way more tension than is healthy, and your posture (and, subsequently, your horse’s mouth) suffers for it!

Carrying tension in your shoulders restricts the mobility of all the joints through your thoracic spine. This restriction, at best, requires some other part of your body to become hyper-mobile to compensate for the horse’s movement, and at worst simply forces the horse to take the full rigidity of that tension in his back – a painful situation for both horse and rider! This exercise will start to loosen up the shoulders and allow the horse’s movement to flow more readily through the shoulder joints.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Stand relaxed, with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft, and arms hanging comfortably at your sides.
  • Raise your hands straight out in front of you to about shoulder height.
  • Keeping your arms as straight as you can, start to roll your shoulders by lifting them up, back, down, and forward, in a circle.
  • Repeat this shoulder circle, isolating the movement as much as you possibly can to just the shoulder joint, while keeping your arms perfectly straight.
  • Concentrate on keeping your arms perfectly straight – it is very common for the arms to try to “help” make the motion larger – and making each circle identical in size and shape between your two shoulders (this will highlight any asymmetry you have in function and mobility between your two shoulders).
  • Continue these shoulder rotations for at least 30 seconds.
  • Finish this exercise by doing a full rotation of your arms to further loosen and warm up your pectoral muscles and rotator cuffs. If you can’t complete a full arm circle due to previous rotator cuff injury, simply make the circle to your best ability. Perform at least 4 to 6 full rotations of each arm, alternating arms (rather than trying to rotate both arms simultaneously).

What to expect:

Nearly everyone feels and/or hears “crunching” during this exercise! Depending on how much tension you’ve carried in your shoulders, and for how long, you may experience a lot of “noise”! Consistent repetition of this exercise will reduce this “noise” and will also improve shoulder mobility to the point that you will be able to make a much larger motion with the shoulders, without the arms trying to “help”.

Cautions and contraindications:

If you have any previous shoulder injuries, you are likely to have built up scar tissue in the structures of the injured joint. Repetitions of this exercise will begin to break up that scar tissue. However, breaking up scar tissue can be extremely painful, and you may think that the exercise is doing damage, when it is actually helping improve your shoulder function. See the section “A word about pain…” below for a discussion of healing vs. hurtful pain.

Exercise #3: Torso Twist

Flexibility through your spine is the #1 most important part of your riding fitness. Yet, most of us have tension or restrictions at some point in our spine, and very often we also have a slight twist to one side or the other. This exercise will start to warm up and mobilize the entire spine, allowing us to “unwind” any twists we naturally have, and to loosen up the vertebrae all the way up and down our backs.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Stand relaxed, with feet about shoulder-width apart, knees soft, and arms hanging loose and floppy.
  • Keeping your torso upright and yet relaxed, twist your shoulders to the right and left, allowing your arms to swing around and your hands to gently slap against your thighs. The more relaxed you are during this exercise, the better.
  • To improve the effectiveness of this exercise, allow your eyes to follow the twist, so that you are looking in the direction of the twist, each way.
  • Continue a smooth, relaxed twist from side to side for approximately 30 seconds.

What to expect:
You may find yourself keeping your arms stiff during this exercise. Loosen up! The looser and more relaxed you allow your arms to be, the more focused this exercise is on your spine – which your horse will thank you for!

Cautions and contraindications:
It is very important to *allow* this movement to happen, never force it. If you have knee problems, be sure to keep the knees comfortably flexed, but isolate the twist to your torso, and do not allow it to flow down into your knees.

Exercise #4: Seatbone Walking

This exercise targets a variety of muscles, from the hips, pelvis and muscle attachments at the tops of your legs to your deep psoas muscles (often called hip flexors) which are the rider’s best friend – providing the stability and strength to both sit upright on a moving object, and to half-halt. This exercise warms up and mobilizes all the muscles and joints of the lumbar spine and pelvis, while providing a lovely “massage” action to the hamstring attachments. This is a “must do” exercise for riders, especially those suffering from any sort of low back pain.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Sit on your mat with your knees raised at about a 90 degree angle to your hips – a “V-sit” position, feet flat on the floor.
  • Arms can be bent or resting on your knees, upper body should be held nicely upright with your belly button pressed back towards your spine.
  • Start to “walk” on your seatbones forward to the end of the mat, and then backwards to your starting point. Repeat forward and back.

What to expect:

  • You may find that you don’t “walk” very much when you first start this exercise. Keep at it, and as your pelvis and low back develop greater flexibility, you will walk more and more.
  • It is very common when first starting this exercise for the leg muscles at the top of your legs (or what we typically think of as our hip flexors, which are really our quadriceps attachments) to become quite fatigued and “burn” during this exercise. This is normal, and these muscles should be stretched afterwards. A slightly easier modification to this exercise would be to do it with the legs lying flat on the mat, rather than with the knees up.
  • It is also quite common for the low back muscles to become fatigued during this exercise. This is intentional, as we need these muscles to warm up and become stronger in order to properly support the sacroiliac joints. If you feel a great deal of muscle “burn” doing this exercise, the “hip and shoulder twists” below will sufficiently release any muscle fatigue you have developed in this exercise.

Cautions and contraindications:
If you have any sort of tailbone injury or cyst, do not do this exercise. In fact, if you have a tailbone injury, you should not be riding a horse until any acute injury has healed and inflammation has subsided to the point that sitting is reasonably comfortable. After that, this exercise can be invaluable as part of your physical therapy to restore full functional mobility to your tailbone, but start it with your legs lying flat rather than in a “v-sit” position, to minimize the pressure on your tailbone.

Exercise #5: V-sit Pelvic Tilts

In order to follow the full range of motion of your horse’s canter, you must have great mobility through your entire lumbar spine, pelvis and hips. And yet, most of us are much too tight through our lower backs and hips! In order to apply half-halts, we also must have fine motor control over this part of our body. This exercise will not only develop strength and stability, but the fine muscle control of that entire part of our bodies, and it will also vastly improve the mobility through our low backs. If you suffer from low back pain or from low back injuries, this one should also relieve much of that pain with repeated practice.

How to perform this exercise:

  • Sit on your mat with your knees raised at about a 90 degree angle to your hips – a “V-sit” position, feet flat on the floor. Bring your arms straight up in front of you to about shoulder height.
  • Lean back just until you feel your deep, low abdominal muscles engage.
  • Then, keeping your shoulders perfectly still, and your upper back flat, begin to tilt your pelvis backwards from your belly button, and flex it forward again. This tiny little movement should be completely isolated to your waist, and should not engage your shoulders and upper back in any way.
  • Imagine, as you bring your waist back up to neutral, that you are trying to press your belly to your knees.
  • Time yourself and continue this slow, controlled, and small pelvic tilt movement for a full 60 seconds.

What to expect:
Most people will find this pelvic tilt movement a challenge at first. Simply isolating the waist is a challenge, but then the strength required to maintain the movement for a full minute will likely cause many to feel like they can’t do it. Stick with it! You can do anything for one minute! There is no number of repetitions or speed required; just continuous movement and potentially “struggle” for a full minute.

Cautions and contraindications:
If you have a tail bone injury, you will either want to perform this exercise sitting on a donut cushion, or have some sort of very thick, soft mat under your tail bone to prevent excessive pain. Individuals with abdominal hernias should not perform this exercise unless given approval by your doctor. Individuals with low back pain may find their pain to be greatly relieved by this exercise. However, as with any exercise, go slowly and use caution if you have any low back injuries. See the section “A word about pain…” for more details on exercising with injuries.

Exercise #6: Skip with a Twist

Easily one of the most powerful coordinative exercises for the human body, skipping exercises a whole host of balance, proprioceptive and neurological factors. It requires the two hemispheres of the brain to communicate in a way that other exercises do not, which in turn improve balance, coordination and even cognitive processing.

Adding a twist to the skip makes the exercise even more effective for riders, whose brains must be able to keep track of where their bodies are in space by feel rather than by eyesight. Skipping is also a fantastic cardiovascular exercise, not to mention, it’s almost impossible to skip without smiling or laughing… The benefits of skipping go far beyond physical conditioning, and definitely include making the coordination required for riding the canter a much simpler affair.

How to perform the exercise:

Most of us learned to skip when we were children. However, injuries and age can cause the neuro-muscular pathways that allow for skipping to become weakened from dis-use and even physical interruption, and make it a lot more challenging than you might expect!

  • Start with a normal skipping motion, swinging your arms with each skip step
  • As you find a comfortable balance with a basic skipping motion, begin to add a twist of your upper body so that your shoulders and head turn from right to left in time with your skip.
  • Follow the twist with your eyes to give your brain a greater proprioceptive challenge.

What to expect:
If you never skipped as a child, or you have suffered any sort of injuries – especially those of the spine – you may automatically skip in a lateral way – with your right leg and arm swinging together, and your left leg and arm swinging together. This lateral gait is akin to a lateral walk in a horse – something you want to correct in order to get the full benefits of this exercise. A skip must be a diagonal motion, where your right leg and left arm swing together, and vice versa. The twist must then also be across the body. For example, when your left leg and right arm are swinging forward, you twist towards your left leg.

Cautions and contraindications:
Individuals with weak or injury prone ankles will want to take this exercise slowly. It will vastly strengthen the supporting muscles around the ankles, making them stronger over time, but ease into it. You can even start by skipping in place.

Individuals who suffer from vertigo should also be very careful with this exercise. The twist can really challenge your brain’s sense of balance, so if you are not careful, you can lose your balance and start to tip over. Exercise a reasonable amount of caution introducing the twist to the skip.

Exercise #6: Seated Balance on stability ball

This exercise simulates the feeling of riding with a “deep” seat. It requires that all the rider’s weight be concentrated and balanced on the seat itself, with the hips, pelvis and waist remaining mobile enough to adjust instantly to balance changes as the ball moves under the rider’s weight. This exercise is great to do when you’re sitting watching TV, or just hanging out.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Sit on your stability/balance ball, as though you are sitting in a chair.
  • Find a comfortable balance, and then lift your feet up off the ground, balancing entirely on your seat.
  • You can lift your feet up to the side of the ball, or out in front of you, but be sure to keep your low back “settled” in a relaxed position, and not tense or tight. The more relaxed you keep your entire body, the easier it will be to find a stable balance on the ball.
  • Your body will adapt quickly to this exercise, so to keep it challenging, add some arm movements – lifting the arms up overhead, out to the side, and even twisting your torso from side to side, while keeping the ball perfectly in the middle of your weight.

What to expect:
This exercise may feel “easy” from a physical effort standpoint, but rest assured that it is “heavy lifting” for your brain, which has to work quickly to learn new neural pathways, and adapt to rapid changes in balance. Be patient with yourself, and be persistent, and you will develop sophisticated fine motor control by balancing on the ball. When you get back on your horse, after practicing this exercise, imagine yourself on the ball when you go to canter, and you will feel that deep seat and automatic relaxation that your brain has learned on the ball, which will “glue” your seat into the saddle (this is also very beneficial if your horse is prone to spooking).

Cautions and Contraindications:
Until your brain has figured out the “seated balance”, expect to tilt and roll off the ball at least once while your brain adapts to this type of balance. It may be helpful to do this exercise with something stable that you can hold onto nearby, so that you do not fall or hit your head. If you suffer from vertigo, perform this exercise with care.

Exercise #7: Hip & Shoulder Twists

This is one of the most powerful and rewarding exercises a rider can do. It simultaneously improves mobility of the entire torso, strengthens all the muscles of the core body, and re-aligns the spine. It also feels GREAT. This exercise can single-handedly reduce or eliminate chronic back pain, especially in instances of damage to the discs between the spinal processes.

How to perform the exercise:

  • Hip Twists
    • Lying on your back on a mat, lift your knees up towards the ceiling until they are at about a 90 degree angle to your hips.
    • If your flexibility allows, cross one leg over the other, so that the ankle of your crossed leg is resting just above the knee of the other leg.
    • Keeping the angle between your hip and knee at least 90 degrees is critical for this exercise, as it will protect your lower back from strain, and allow you to get the full benefit of the exercise. If you cannot keep your hip angle closed with one leg crossed, DO NOT cross your leg, simply keep the knees together and as close to your chest as possible.
    • Keeping your shoulders well pressed into the mat, proceed to allow your knees to fall to the side, all the way to the floor. Then, bring them back up across your body and allow them to fall to the other side, all the way to the floor.
    • Continue this way with a slow, controlled and steady motion, and you will find your body “walking” itself down the mat. If you find that your core muscles are not strong enough to control the descent of your knees, or to lift them back up without arching your lower back, use your hands at your knees to help guide them down and back up.
    • Continue in this manner until you have reached the very end of your mat with your hips. Then, place your feet flat on the floor with knees bent, and move to the next step of the exercise.
  • Shoulder twists:
    • With your feet are flat on the floor, lift your hands up over your chest, in line with your shoulders.
    • Then, while keeping both hips on the mat, reach with your arms directly to the side, as though you are reaching for something on your bedside table.
    • Reach from one side to the other, as far as you possibly can without lifting your hips off the mat, but allowing the shoulder to come up off the mat in a slow, controlled and continuous motion.
    • As you continue reaching from side to side, you will notice that your body will “walk” itself back up to the top of your mat.
  • Repeat: once you have reached the top of your mat, repeat both the hip and shoulder twists. If you performed the hip twist with one leg crossed, be sure to cross the other leg this time, to ensure your hips are evenly mobilized.

What to expect:
Many people, especially those who have back pain or have suffered injuries of the back or hips find that this exercise exposes a lot of “guarding” that they were previously unaware. They will either try not to release the knees all the way to the floor, or will be hesitant to keep the movement steady and flowing, stopping and starting instead.

If you find that you are “guarding” against potential pain during this exercise, I strongly encourage you to 1) take it slowly, and 2) breathe and relax into the release. You will likely feel a stretch from your hip, all the way up to your shoulder blades in this movement, which, if you allow it, will begin to feel like a marvelous massage. This exercise, while powerful in improving mobility of the entire spine and hips, will not injure those structures, so give it a chance to work in your body.

Cautions and contraindications:
Under no circumstances should you allow your knees to flop from side to side. This is a formula for low back strain. All motion should be slow and controlled. Additionally, at no point should you allow your knees to straighten below a 90 degree angle to the floor as this will put your lowe back into tension, and cause undue strain on the ligaments of the lumbar spine.

Putting it all together

In about 15 minutes per day, you can completely change the way you feel as you ride with these few exercises. The improved balance, relaxation and mobility the exercises will provide will make riding the canter feel natural and comfortable, giving you much greater confidence in the saddle. If you like the results you get from doing these exercises, let us know by “liking” us on Facebook, and commenting:

A word about pain, injuries and exercising:


As a professional fitness trainer who has been through numerous sport-related injuries and rehabilitation therapy, myself, I know first-hand that sometimes the old adage “No Pain, No Gain” is entirely too true. However, it is important to know the difference between “good” or healing/beneficial pain and “bad” or injurious pain when you exercise. Therefore, I will offer the following guidelines to be able to make your own determination whether your pain is healing or hurtful pain:

Suffice it to say, if you have an acute injury, you need R.I.C.E. – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. You should NOT be exercising the injured body part at this point.

However, if you are past the acute injury, or the injury is old and cranky, your best way of gauging whether the exercise is helping or hurting is this:

  • Take the exercise very slowly, and breathe deeply into any pain that you feel.
  • Then, immediately after stopping the exercise, when your joints and muscles should be warmed up with the movement, see if the pain subsides, or continues past the stopping point. Wait 5 or 10 minutes and re-evaluate.
  • You may possibly want to use ice if you continue to experience soreness at this point.
  • The next day, try the exercise again and see if you feel more, or less pain doing the exercise.
    • Pay attention to whether the pain is concentrated in the muscle or actually in the joint itself. Muscle soreness is a normal and healthy response to exercises that your body is unused to performing. Joint pain, however, is never a healthy response to exercise (arthritis in a joint is a slightly different matter, and should improve as indicated in the next bullet point).
    • If the exercise is actually benefitting your body, you will generally experience less pain when the muscles, tendons and joints are warmed up, and with each repetition over a period of about 3 days.
    • If the exercise is aggravating an injury, however, it will become gradually more painful to perform the exercise. If you find this is the case, stop the exercise and go see a doctor, as you likely have not allowed the injury to fully heal, or may be “overdoing” the exercise. You may need some focused physical therapy to bring the joint back to full function.
    • Alternately, if the pain is concentrated in the muscle, you may have overworked that muscle and need to let it rest for a day or two before going back to the exercise.
    • Use common sense and never “force” an exercise to happen. Force is the opposite of what we want to develop as riders, and has no viable place in developing greater physical fitness.