Stiffness in Rider’s Body – Using Rising Canter and “Soft Knees Half-Seat” for training.

Since writing “Stiff Arms When Riding and How To Train Them Away” some of you asked for more information on rising canter which I mentioned in the above post. As I have a young rider  training with me right now who is working on improving her effectiveness in canter, I roped her and her lovely pony, Ventus, in for a little video demonstration. Please bare in mind she is only learning the exercise and video footage shows her first go at it.


My two favourite canter exercises that fight stiffness and improve harmony are:

1)  using very soft knees in half – seat (or 2 point) and

2) the rising canter.

The reason being it is almost impossible to ride either of the above for more than several strides without also creating enough impulsion and freedom of movement in the horse’s gait. If canter is lacking forwardness or the horse is severely behind the leg, both canter exercises are impossible to do well.

As it is then, they give the rider immediate feedback on absolute basics which can be sometimes overlooked in full seat…


This way of riding a canter creates an appearance of somewhat bouncy canter seat but it should never ever be heavy on the horse’s back (rider’s seat either just about brushes the saddle in the down phase or lifts again before coming in contact with the saddle. All movement of the horse goes through rider’s knees, hips and ankles and despite having serious issues with one of my knees myself I have not personally noticed any detrimental effect of this way of riding. I have shown this exercise on a video included in this post. This way of riding in half seat is sometimes referred to as an “incorrect rising canter” but whatever we call it, it really builds feel, stability, upper body independence and arms suppleness 🙂 It also helps the rider with timing of the leg aids and with supporting each canter stride as and when necessary.

Additionally, it increases reaction time when jumping, is great for very hot horses and helps those riders who tend to fold over the jumps excessively.


Rising Canter stills
This is myself on Ventus. His saddle is too small for me – ideally you want your seat centred (mine should be closer to the pommel in the sitting phase).

In rising canter, the rider sits for one full stride and immediately stands up for the next full stride, then sits again for full stride and stands again for next one. This cantering method has many advantages not only for riders but for horses too.

I will focus on its use in rider’s training today.


(Do excuse my lack of decent presentation of the subject here; I am usually the one behind the camera! Let’s hope it’s helpful enough 🙂


Many novice and intermediate riders have trouble with riding the actual canter stride of their horse without stiffness. If they feel nervous they might move own body in “shorter” strides or “longer” strides, they might worry about being left behind or bounced upwards, they might grip through their thighs and knees and lose their stirrups, they might lock through their hip joints and “drive” the canter by rubbing their seat down into the saddle. This encourages the horse to dip his back away from the pressure and therefore tensing the very muscles that needs to be relaxed and supple for the movement to be most effortless and pleasant to both sit to and to watch.

Some advanced riders who were taught to grip with their knees in canter or sitting trot (especially those who jump or event) and who now struggle to improve the quality of their horses’ canter will also find both of these exercises to have unlocking effect on their pelvis and knees and stabilising effect on their hands. In turn, this will help with expression and freedom of the horse’s movement.

I can’t emphasise enough the influence both of these exercises have on overall improvement of movement harmony…I have seen novice riders going from rigid, stiff figurines to much more supple, fluid, effective riders in a few months of regular practice of canter exercises. It’s not a quick fix for sure but it is pretty much a permanent one.


Over the years I was surprised to notice that many riders find rising canter much easier to get the hang of than the balanced bouncy half seat which is why I did it myself on the video. It takes some practice to not adversely affect the stride or remain in control of upper body in this exercise but if you try and find it difficult, persevere – it will transform your confidence in timings of your aids and balance of your horse.

Agata will be back on screen next month to show you her progress with rising canter!

Please let me know if you found this useful and leave a comment with any questions. If you have a riding issue that you are working on, let me know, maybe we can explore it on here 🙂



11 thoughts on “Stiffness in Rider’s Body – Using Rising Canter and “Soft Knees Half-Seat” for training.”

  1. Thanks for a wonderful lesson, will be trying the ‘soft knees’ next time I ride as never heard of it before, am very interested to see what it’s all about as you do make it look easy Wiola! Lovely pony too =)

    1. Thank you 🙂 I do find it easy personally but I know many riders don’t. You never know, it might come natural to you too 🙂 One thing I noticed is that riders who tend to fold a lot and lean forward have a hard time with the bouncy half-seat (soft knees half seat). Riders who are worried about their upper bodies and their balance also struggle here. It’s a very versatile exercise though and certainly great for slower canters out over varied terrain 😉
      The pony is fabulous, love him! He’s a German Sports Pony and when ridden well he moves wonderfully and jumps like a stag!

  2. My instructor started me straight off with the rising canter on my first lesson saying master this and the rest comes naturally, she was right it was hard going having a bad case of male dance floor coordination and being a left handed dyslexic, great lesson helpful for many I’m sure

    1. Hahaha I was going to make a comparison to dancing here as riding is quite like seeking harmony with a dancing partner isn’t it 🙂

      That must have been a challenge on the first lesson but sounds like benefits overshadowed the effort!
      And thank you and hope it is helpful for many riders out there.

      1. luckily my instructor is a old friend and knew I had been around and ridden horses before still not the best rider but getting better,
        I think and advise every one who will listen working with horses is all about getting in harmony and getting the timing right, weather you a riding or on the ground or even in the field trying to catch them

  3. This looks amazing! Thanks for posting. I’m desperate to have a go at this now, but I don’t think it’ll work with the (bucking young) horse I’ve been riding, sadly. Hopefully I’ll get to practice it at some point in the next few months, when I can find a horse who will be better-suited to helping me to learn this exercise. My instructor has been having me sort of do this exercise in trot, though that’s less about fluidity and more about balance and concentration.

    1. I hope you’ll get a chance soon! I do a similar exercise in trot too, got the videos already but must have a minute to edit them and lighten them as they come out very dark from indoor arena. It takes time to prepare them for viewing when something is visible.

      In trot, I do variations of rhythm and so instead of up-down rhythm I change it into up up – down down or 2 up, 3 down or 4 up 1 down etc My young rider struggles with this quite a bit but it’s a great exercise to improve feel and coordination.

      For “your” bucking horse – I did read your post…It sounds he needs time out hacking to simply find his feet under the rider first. I would also check his saddle for fit and if you tack him up yourself, run your fingers on both sides of his back from wither to lumbar area. Press down gently and observe his reaction. He might have back issues from carrying himself badly which further exacerbates problems with balance.

      Hope you get to ride another horse soon and progress further.

      1. Yes, that’s similar to what I’ve been doing: stand for a stride, sit for a stride (and longer variations of this). I’m so uncoordinated, I find it really difficult.

        Thanks for the feedback – sometimes I tack him up, sometimes he’s ready for me. I’ll try and get there early next time so that I can tack him up and check. I realised a while after my last ride that he was also super fresh last time: it was 2 January, I don’t think he’d worked for over a week and he’d been stabled due to the weather, so that’s another reason he was all over the place! It’s a struggle to get him to focus for very long, he really is a baby in that way, so he’ll get it for a few strides and move nicely, then he’ll either get bored/tired/distracted and be wobbling all over again.

      2. Ahh hang on there, it really gets better with practice 🙂

        As you can guess, I read your post with sadness both for the horse and partially for you as it is obvious you really want to learn and improve.
        I don’t know how long are your lessons but with such young, uncoordinated horses you wouldn’t work longer than 30min in the arena exactly for the reasons you mentioned – they just don’t cope mentally and physically with “the usual lesson format”. They need lesson bespoke to them not to the rider.
        If I were you I would have an honest chat with your instructor, tell them about your goals and ask for another horse OR ask that your lessons are geared to the needs of this particular horse so you can further learn about schooling of a baby.
        For example: if he struggles with canter in the way you described, don’t jump as it’s simply asking him to misbehave and learn bad habits. Work on balance exercises – transitions, transitions, transitions. Try not to practice seat/rhythm exercises as they are likely to worry him further and make his job of carrying a rider more difficult. Think like his trainer.

        Of course, I would go for the first option…

        Good luck anyway, I look forward to your next post…

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