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About the Horse’s Canter Gait in Dressage

About the Horse’s Canter Gait in Dressage


The canter is probably the trickiest gait for a young horse to master in the confines of the dressage arena, as the engagement and balance are still being established.

So, how do you recognize a good quality canter, what are the most common faults, and how do you correct them?

Read on to find out more.

Recognizing a quality canter

The canter is a pace of 3-beat; that is it should have ‘uphill’ cadenced strides, followed by a moment of suspension.

If the moment of suspension appears only very briefly, or worse, is missing, the beat becomes that of 4-time which is a serious fault and will be heavily penalized in the competitive environment.

It should be in the rider’s best interests to train to enhance the quality of the paces and the way of going.

Take a moment to look again at your sheets after a competition and you will see in the ‘Directives’ column the phrase, ‘quality of canter’.

The term ‘quality’ refers to the regularity and lightness of the strides, the uphill tendency, and the natural ability of the horse to carry himself whilst maintaining active well-placed hind legs.  This should result in a horse that is able to maintain rhythm and balance appropriate to their level of development.

Canter footfalls

When in right lead canter, the footfall sequence is:

  • the left hind initiates the stride sequence by touching the ground first, followed by the diagonal pair of the right hind leg and the left foreleg, followed by the leading right foreleg.

Common faults in canter

Strides that are ‘propping’ onto the forehand

This is usually due to the horse becoming out of balance and heaving himself off the shoulders rather than flexing the joints in the hindquarters and placing the hind legs under the body.

The rider can help by making frequent, prompt transitions from working to medium canter, trying not to let the frame become too long.

A canter that is 4-beat

This refers to a canter where the rhythm has become faulty due to lack of attention to the moment of suspension, or because the horse has limited natural scope.

In the case of the former, sometimes the rider has used too much rein and too little leg or forward seat aids when trying to introduce a more collected frame.

The horse is crooked in the canter

Ideally, the rider would like the horse to maintain straightness, but if the horse has lost suppleness and balance, this is harder to achieve.

As a consequence, the shoulders may fall in or out, and the hindquarters may come in.  Sometimes this fault may also be initiated by a rider not sitting centrally in the saddle.

Improving the Canter

If the horse shows any of the above faults in the canter, the rider might wish to think about incorporating some of the following to help improve the way of going:

Find sitting trot a few strides earlier before initiating the canter aid and strike off, so as to avoid any sudden impact of weight on the horse’s back as he is working out where to place his legs.

If the horse ‘props’ onto the shoulders, or assumes a croup high posture, try to ride it more forwards, using frequent changes of tempo within the canter, for example working canter to medium canter.

Ride the canter energetically forwards, as this has a very good suppling effect.  The increased ‘stepping-under’ effect will contract the Longissimus Dorsi muscle and thus stimulate the activity of the hind legs and roundness of the frame.

Practice making the canter aids more coordinated and subtle.  Ride frequent trot-canter transitions.  These will help everything!  They will encourage the horse to develop engagement and carrying capacity, whilst building the all-important quality of the frame.

Conversely, use canter-trot transitions and then more direct transitions from walk to canter and canter to walk.  Make sure the strike-offs are into the contact and fluent and that the horse allows your balancing half-halts to come through.

In conclusion

The rider would like to train their horse to maintain a clear and expressive moment of suspension in the canter, to enable their horse to transfer its weight back onto supportive, well placed hind legs, to achieve a good balance within the pace, whether working, medium, or a more collected canter.

Finally, and for the high marks in the tests, the rider is looking to achieve a quality in the canter which shows a nice height through the front leg and good shoulder action.

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