Extended canter is a movement that appears in dressage tests at Medium level (UK) and Third level (US) and above.
However, even if you’re not competing at that level just yet, you can still use the extended canter as an exercise to improve your horse’s trot work, loosen his back, and respond more simultaneously to your half-halt aids.
So, how do you ride extended canter?
In this article, we answer some commonly-asked questions about the extended canter, and we’ll explain how to ride a good one.
What is extended canter?
In the extended canter, the horse should cover the maximum amount of ground of which he is physically capable, showing an increased moment of suspension.
As well as lengthening his stride, the horse’s frame should lengthen with his nose pointing more or less forward.
The horse should maintain the correct three-beat canter sequence and tempo, while remaining relaxed and supple through his back. The horse should lower his croup so that the steps are elevated, elastic, and uphill.
An extended canter that ticks all those boxes will be rewarded with a high mark from the dressage judge.
What does extended canter tell the dressage judge?
When the judge is presented with a good quality extended canter, clear, balanced transitions, and an attentive horse, he/she can see that the rider’s half-halts are working and that the combination is working in harmony.
The horse is clearly connected through his back to the rider’s contact, and he is truly supple and elastic through his back and neck.
Bottom line: a good extended canter with smooth, clear transitions in and out tells the dressage judge that the horse is truly “through.”
Related Read: How to Get Your Horse Rounder and More Through
Common problems in the extended canter
Unfortunately, extended canter can be something of a banana skin for the dressage rider. Common problems in the extended canter that are seen by dressage judges include:
- Hollowing and rushing the strides
- Galloping, so losing the correct canter sequence
- Losing balance onto the forehand
- Rider using too much hand so that the horse comes short in the neck and/or behind the vertical
- Losing engagement and becoming crooked (quarters coming in)
The horse should show clear, balanced transitions in and out of the extended canter. In some dressage tests, these transitions are marked separately.
Another common failure is that the rider uses too much hand, resulting in a rough, unbalanced transition. The consequent loss of engagement often leaves the horse on his forehand, spoiling the quality of the trot work after the transition.
Assessing the canter
Before you can begin teaching your horse to extend the canter, you must take a look at the working canter, especially the transitions within the pace.
The canter works as a natural conditioner for the horse’s back, causing the back muscles to stretch, as the horse sits on his hind legs and thrusts himself into the suspension phase of the stride. That causes the horse to be momentarily collected.
By using a half-halt to balance the horse, you can prevent the haunches from overpowering the forehand. That enables the horse to stretch his loin and belly muscles, enabling him to achieve the sustained collection that he will need for the more advanced work.
A good quality working canter will teach the horse to respond to a light leg aid. Once you have achieved that, you will be able to collect the horse without losing engagement and impulsion. In turn, that will keep the horse supple and thinking forward while waiting for your next instruction, which will enable you to ride balanced transitions in and out of the extended canter.
So, working on transitions within the canter will help to develop and strengthen your horse, make him more supple and “through,” and more sensitive to your aids.
Here’s a summary of the qualities you will need in your horse’s working canter before you can begin working on the extended canter:
The horse must move easily from a light leg aid. That will enable you to engage the horse in both upward and downward transitions so that you can keep him supple and round in his frame.
You must be able to maintain the impulsion without having to “pump” with your back and seat.
The horse must flex to both left and right reins while working evenly into both.
The horse must remain straight in the canter and during the transitions within the pace.
The horse must be relaxed and active when performing shoulder-fore and leg-yield.
The horse must work consistently in self-carriage without falling onto his forehand or relying on your hand for balance and support.
- How to Develop Self-Carriage
- How to Get Your Horse off His Forehand
- How to Stop Your Horse From Leaning on the Bit
Once you are confident that your horse fulfills all the above criteria, you can start introducing him to the preparatory work for extended canter.
Preparatory work for extended canter
Don’t attempt to ride the extended canter without doing some preparatory work first.
Begin by riding in working canter on a 20-meter circle.
Ask the horse to lengthen for just a few strides, then tighten your legs around the horse’s barrel, and use your seat to collect him.
Soften your back to tell the horse to lengthen again. When you ask the horse to collect again don’t use your reins, instead, use your legs, seat, and back.
Gradually increase the number of lengthened strides until your horse can maintain the lengthening for half the circle, and then “go large.”
Now, using the whole arena, ask your horse to lengthen his canter stride for six strides and then shorten for six.
If the horse begins to lean on the contact, ask him forward again, just a little bit so that the horse thinks about accelerating, and then use a half-halt to collect him again. Try to give your half-halt at the moment when you feel the horse’s hindquarters lift.
That exercise is useful for keeping the horse ready for both upward and downward transitions, and it also helps to keep him from falling onto his forehand.
Very soon, the horse will associate “forward” with bringing his haunches more underneath him for all transitions, improving the connection and the elasticity of his strides.
Before asking your horse to lengthen his stride for the entire long side of the arena, you should practice the upward and downward transitions. That will help you to become familiar with the aids that you need to use for both transitions.
So, make it a habit to ride deep into the corners to allow yourself plenty of time to set your horse up.
The horse must learn to wait for your aids and not “motorbike” around the corner on his inside shoulder.
After you have rounded the corner, put your horse in shoulder-fore for a few strides. Be sure to keep your weight into your inside seat bone, and be careful not to lean in or collapse your hip as you ride around the corner.
If the horse resists, you have probably slipped onto your outside seat bone and are using your inside rein to counterbalance yourself. Adjust your position to help keep the horse straight and correct the resistance.
Straighten the horse from the shoulder-fore as you reach the long side, sitting equally on both your seat bones.
Soften your back so that you follow the horse’s movement with your seat when you ask for the lengthened strides, being careful not to rock your shoulders.
Finally, ride your horse in shoulder-fore from the penultimate letter to the last letter on the long side, and then ride him straight into the next corner.
Using the corners, interspersed with a few strides of shoulder-fore, will help to engage the horse and keep him straight through the transitions and during the canter itself.
This exercise will also prevent you from throwing the horse away into the lengthening in the mistaken belief that the corner will bring him back to you.
How to ride the extended canter
Once you’ve completed the preparatory work, you can ask your horse to stay in extended canter for the whole length of the long side of your arena.
Repeat the process of putting your horse into shoulder-fore as you ride through the corner. Sit equally on both your seat bones and close your leg around the horse’s barrel to ask him for a bigger push from his hind legs.
The horse should respond immediately, and you should feel his forehand lift up. As that happens, soften your hands so that the horse can stretch through his topline. Focus on keeping the horse’s shoulders directly in front of his hindquarters so that he is straight.
As you reach the penultimate letter on the long side, put your weight into your inside seat bone, and bring the horse’s shoulders toward the inside track so that he is in shoulder-fore position and ask for a downward transition back into working canter or collected canter.
Sit deeper as you close your legs to bring the horse’s haunches underneath him, and stop following the forward movement. Be ready to push the horse on with your seat if he feels like he will break the canter.
If you feel the horse losing his uphill cadence, immediately ride onto a 15 or 10-meter circle to re-engage the horse’s hind leg.
Throughout the exercise, never push your horse to give more than he can handle at his stage of training. Be happy with a few good quality steps of extended canter, and build on that.
Many riders make the mistake of asking for too much ground cover at first. That usually causes their horse to lose his balance and fall onto his forehand. Allow your horse to use his back and remain in self-carriage without relying on your hand for support. The horse’s back must be very loose and soft, and you should feel that you are covering ground without increasing the tempo of the canter.
If you have any experience of riding through jumping grids, the feel of an extended canter will feel just like riding a line of bounces down the long side.
Extended canter is a difficult exercise to get right, and many horses rush and break into a four-beat gallop sequence, rather than maintaining the clear three-beat canter.
Take the time to prepare for the extended canter by teaching your horse to understand the half-halt. Make sure that you sit upright through the corners, and use shoulder-fore positioning to keep the horse straight and in an uphill balance.
What problems have you overcome when teaching your horse to extend in the canter? Tell us your story in the comments box below.
- About the Horse’s Canter Gait in Dressage
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- How to Ride a Half-Halt
- How Your Horse Should Use His Hindquarters