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How to Develop Your Horse’s Engagement in the Canter

How to Develop Your Horse's Engagement in the Canter dressage

In British Dressage, when you reach novice level you will notice the word ‘engagement’ appearing in the collective mark directive for ‘Impulsion’.

You may also find comments such as, ‘needs more engagement’ in the judge’s comments for your canter work.

Engagement enables you to balance your horse’s canter through transitions and allows you to develop a more uphill balance.

So, how do you keep your horse engaged in the canter work?

The correct canter

If the horse has a correct canter, then the canter will engage over time as a consequence of good riding and diligent training.

So what is a correct canter?

Canter is a pace of three-time.

For example, in the right lead canter, the stride sequence is initiated by the left hind leg touching the ground first, then the diagonal pair of the right hind and left front legs touching the ground, then the right foreleg – the leading leg.

This sequence of footfall should then be followed by a clear moment of suspension when all four legs are off the ground at the same time.

If this moment of suspension is missing, the whole balance of the gait is inhibited. The horse will appear to canter laterally – that is, side legs and side legs – and instead of a three-beat, the canter will take on a four-beat.

This is a big problem that may, sadly, never be resolved, and therefore the canter will never be engaged.

In the dressage competition arena, unless the horse has a clear three-beat and moment of suspension, the canter will not receive good marks, no matter how accurately the rider performs the movements.

Developing engagement in the canter

Engagement of the hind legs is always relative to the level of training and competition.

Engagement means that the horse can transfer the weight back onto the hind legs which are well flexed and coming under the body.

For example, the horse that is required to canter onto the diagonal line and make a transition to trot near the centre line in a preliminary test requires some engagement, but not as much as the horse that is required to make two half 20-meter circles in canter with transitions through trot near the centre line, in the novice test.  In the elementary tests, the horse is required to canter a 10-meter circle.

For all three movements, some engagement is necessary, but for the 10-meter circle the horse obviously needs to be more ‘on the hind legs’ or engaged and in an uphill frame (outline) for a high mark.

In all three of these movements, it would be possible for the horse to balance onto the shoulders and lengthen and flatten the frame (outline). By doing this, the horse uses his forehand and rider (the reins and hands usually) for support and loses control of the stride length and hence the rider loses the quality, precision and accuracy of the movement.

To improve the engagement of the canter, the rider must have an honest feeling for where they think their horse’s balance is.

The rider must also be able to sit down in the saddle, as they will need good timing of the aids – that is, closure of the seat, legs, and reins in various combinations – in order to feel the tempo (speed of the rhythm) and suppleness, so as to find the best moment to present the horse at the transition.

For the rider to improve the engagement of the canter, they must be able to allow the horse to come ‘through the body’ by being able to give with the hands, particularly the inside one.

The rider keeps a supple lower back and core to be able to follow the canter whilst keeping the upper body as still as possible.

The rider’s inside hip should be just in front of the outside one, but not so far forward that the rider’s outside shoulder trails.

The hands should keep an even contact and assist in the use of the half-halts.

Correct use of the half-halts are very important when engaging the canter, as along with the driving aids, they enable the horse to maintain a ‘jump’ and impulsion which is vital if the rider is going to be able to keep the horse together and in an uphill way of going.

If the canter goes nicely forwards in a clear three-beat rhythm but just a little onto the shoulders, this can be improved by lots of transitional work; down to trot, then walk, then back to trot and canter again.

Ideally, the transitions should come quite close together.

Transitions within the canter on both straight lines and circle lines are necessary too.

Tips for developing engagement in the canter 

  • Feel a clear moment of suspension in the canter.
  • Identify where the balance is (shoulders, head) and where it should be (hindquarters).
  • Be able to sit down in the saddle and follow the movement.
  • Analyze the independence of the seat, leg, and rein aids.
  • Remember to keep the horse forwards, supple, and straight.
  • Let the transitions and lines facilitate the engaging process of the horse for you.

All these tips are essential in the development of engagement in the horse’s canter.

In conclusion

The development of engagement in the canter work is key to showing good uphill balance in a dressage test.

The better balanced and lighter in the shoulders the horse is, the easier it will be for the rider to create true collection and perform movements such as small voltes and lateral work.

In order the engage his hind legs, the horse must be fit and strong enough to do so.

This process takes systematic and methodical training over a period of months, so take your time and you will build a secure foundation for your horse’s future training.

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  1. I think your howtodressage articles are absolutely fantastic. So very informative and motivating.
    I was wondering if you were able to recommend an instructor near me please. I live in Berkshire.
    Thank you very much,
    Sarah Houldey.

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