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How to Ride and Improve Your Horse’s Canter

ride and improve horse's canter 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.

However, it’s in the competitive dressage rider’s best interest to focus on the quality of this gait since so many test movements are based on the canter, such as canter pirouettes, tempi changes, half-passes and zig-zags.

So, in this in-depth article, we take a look at what makes a correct canter, how to ride the canter, and how you can improve it.

About the canter

The canter is also known as ‘the bounding gait.’

When ridden frequently and correctly, the canter can offer the following benefits:

  • Improves the horse’s strength, balance, and coordination.
  • Creates increased spring and expression.
  • Promotes elasticity and suppleness of the horse’s back.
  • Helps to tone weak abdominal muscles.
  • Improves the horse’s cardiovascular system.
  • Can help to encourage the horse to move positively forwards.

A quality canter

If you take a moment to look at your dressage score sheets after a competition, you will notice that in the directives column it states 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 the correct rhythm and balance appropriate to its level of training and show a nice height through the front legs with a good shoulder action.

It is important to be aware of the natural quality of the horse’s canter, as unlike the trot, which can be easily improved if necessary, the canter belongs to the horse.

The correct canter

Before discussing how to ride and improve the horse’s canter, it makes sense that we first understand what we are trying to achieve.

Here is what’s required.

Rhythm and sequence of footfalls

The canter has a three-beat rhythm and the correct sequence of footfalls is as follows:

  • outside hind
  • diagonal pair of the inside hind and outside fore
  • inside fore (the canter leading leg)

The above sequence is then followed by a clear moment of suspension (where all the horse’s feet are off the ground) before re-commencing.

Canter variants and requirements

The four canter variants are:

  1. Working canter
  2. Medium canter
  3. Collected canter
  4. Extended canter

Regardless of which variation you are riding, they should all show the following qualities:

  • A clear and regular three-beat rhythm with the correct sequence of footfalls (as listed above) and a clear moment of suspension.
  • The strides should be regular, light, and cadenced. (Cadenced is an accentuated rhythm with springy impulsion and expression.)
  • A good amount of activity. (This is measured by the bending of the hind leg joints and the briskness of the hind leg step – it does not mean a quick tempo.)
  • The horse should transition into the canter smoothly and without hesitation.
  • The horse should demonstrate mental and physical relaxation so that the back can fully swing.
  • There should be an elastic contact and a round, steady frame.
  • The canter should have plenty of impulsion and “jump” to the strides with engagement of the hindquarters relative to the horse’s level of training.
  • The horse should remain straight on straight lines and show an even bend through turns, circles, and corners.
  • The overall impression of the canter should be one of a horse that is traveling uphill.

On top of those qualities listed above, each variation of the canter has its own additional set of requirements.

Let’s take a look at each one individually.

1 – Working canter

This is the first canter variant that you will ride on a young and novice horse and it forms the foundation for the other canter variants.

The additional judge’s requirements are:

  • The stride length should be between the medium canter and the collect canter and should be a natural and comfortable length that the horse can easily maintain.
  • The strides should be light, even, and active with a forward tendency.

Related Read: How to Ride Working Canter

2 – Medium canter

For the medium canter, the horse should show a moderate lengthening of the strides without hurrying.

The additional judge’s requirements are:

  • The stride length should be longer than the working canter but shorter than the extended canter.
  • The horse should be allowed to lengthen his whole frame, lower the head and neck slightly, and place his nose slightly in front of the vertical.
  • The horse should ‘push’ into lengthening with impulsion generated from his hindquarters.
  • The strides should remain balanced and the whole movement should remain unconstrained.
  • The transitions into and out of the medium pace should be smooth and balanced.
  • The rider must remain in balance with the horse and not lean backward.

Related Read: How to Ride Medium Canter

3 – Collected canter

This pace requires the horse to shift more weight to his hindquarters in order to produce a shorter and taller canter stride with increased flexion of the hindleg joints.

Collection (in all paces) should be thought of as a rebalancing of the weight carriage towards the haunches, and NOT as a shortening of the stride. The shorter, higher steps of collection are the RESULT of the re-balancing.

The additional judge’s requirements are:

  • The horse should remain connected to the contact with a raised and arched neck.
  • The strides should be shorter and taller but still maintain the impulsion, elasticity, and cadence.
  • The horse should demonstrate clear self-carriage with greater mobility of the shoulders.
  • The hocks should be well-engaged relative to the horse’s level of training.
  • The horse should have a shorter and taller frame with his nose coming just onto the vertical.

Related Read: How to Ride Collected Canter

4 – Extended canter

During this pace, the horse is required to lengthen the stride as much as his conformation allows.

The additional judge’s requirements are:

  • The horse should cover as much ground as he is physically capable of without rushing.
  • The transitions into and out of the extension should be smooth and well-balanced.
  • The horse should be allowed to lengthen the whole frame and his nose should be slightly in front of the vertical.
  • The horse should remain calm through the transitions and within the extension itself.
  • There should be greater impulsion generated from the horse’s hindquarters whilst the strides remain light.
  • The rider must remain in balance with the horse and not lean backward.
  • The horse should show an increased moment of suspension.

Related Read: How to Ride Extended Canter

Diagonal Advanced Placement (DAP) within the canter

During the canter’s sequence of footfalls, the horse has a diagonal pair of the inside hind and the outside fore.

We describe a diagonal pair of legs as moving and landing together. However, when the horse’s canter is studied in slow-motion, you may see that the horse’s diagonal limb pairs are often slightly dissociated and might not leave and contact the ground at exactly the same time.

Diagonal Advanced Placement, or DAP, is also referred to as diagonal dissociation and it describes one foot of a diagonal pairing landing fractionally before the other foot. It is often very subtle and cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Here are the key points you need to know.

  • If the horse is moving in an uphill balance with an elevated forehand, this usually means that his hind foot in a diagonal pair will hit the ground fractionally before his front foot. This is known as positive DAP (+DAP).
  • If the horse is on the forehand and is moving in a downhill manner, this usually means that his front foot in a diagonal pair will hit the ground fractionally before his hind foot. This is known as negative DAP (-DAP).
  • If the horse’s diagonal pair of limbs do indeed land together, then this is known as zero DAP.

Although a small amount of +DAP can be considered a good thing, many classical dressage masters consider positive DAP to be an impurity of the horse’s gait.

If you would like more information on this, we have written a separate article on DAP which we will link below.

Related Read: How to Identify Diagonal Advanced Placement (DAP)

How to ride the canter

The canter transition

When transitioning into canter, from trot or walk, emphasis should be on the horse ‘pushing from the hind legs that are placed under the body’ rather than launching off the shoulders. This is vital as it educates and enables the horse to develop incremental levels of engagement.

To get a clean canter strike-off onto the correct leading leg you need to time your canter aids.

As discussed, the canter sequence starts on the horse’s outside hind leg. Therefore, you need to apply your canter aids just as the horse’s outside hind leg is coming into contact with the ground. It’s only at this precise moment that you can change the step of the outside hind from a walk/trot step into the first canter step.

The aids for canter are as follows:

  • Inside rein asks for a small amount of flexion to the inside.
  • Outside rein has an elastic balancing effect, prevents too much neck bend and stops the horse from falling out through the outside shoulder.
  • Inside leg at the girth encourages the horse to step under with his inside hind leg.
  • Outside leg behind the girth helps to initiate the canter strike-off by encouraging the horse to push off with his outside hind leg.
  • Weight in the inside seat bone gives a downwards/forwards push to help initiate the canter strike-off. This also frees the horse’s back on the outside, again encouraging the horse to push off with his outside hind leg.

With young and novice horses, it’s best to ask for the canter strike-off in a corner or on a circle as the bend will help to balance the canter transitions as well as make it clear to the horse which canter lead you require. As the horse’s education and understanding of the aids progress, you can then begin to ask for the canter strike-off on straight lines and in other places of the arena.

Riding the canter

During the canter, the horse ‘rocks’ between his hind legs and his forelegs. This motion can cause the rider to rock their upper body back and forth, however, this should be avoided. Instead, your upper body needs to remain perpendicular to the ground and the horse’s movement should be absorbed through your hips.

Your legs should hang down naturally and, unless aiding the horse, they should maintain a passive contact with the horse’s sides without gripping.

Your contact should remain steady and elastic, and you should stay sat up in the center of the saddle; not leaning to the inside or twisting in your seat.

Related Read: How (And Why) To Maintain the Correct Rider Position

Next, ride the horse positively forwards, focusing on maintaining a regular rhythm, a consistent tempo, and the moment of suspension.

If the horse begins to rush, lose balance, and/or tip onto the forehand, then ride the horse onto a large circle and use the half-halt to help balance and regulate the pace.

Related Reads:

Common problems seen in the canter

As you are training the canter, you need to be aware of some of the pitfalls.

Here are six of the most common problems.

1 – 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.

To help correct this issue, ride the horse forwards with frequent, prompt transitions from working canter to medium canter, trying not to let the frame become too long. This will encourage the horse to have a more active and engaged hind leg, creating a lighter and freer forehand.

Related Read: How to Ride Transitions “On and Back” Within the Paces

2 – A canter that is 4-beat

As mentioned, the canter is a 3-beat gait with a clear moment of suspension. If the moment of suspension appears only very briefly, or worse, is missing, the canter then becomes 4-beat which is a serious fault and will be heavily penalized in the competitive environment.

During a 4-beat canter, the horse can be seen to shuffle along in a pace that is somewhere between the trot and a canter, often nicknamed a ‘tranter.’

This fault usually occurs when the rider has used too much rein, tried to slow the canter down, and/or tried to collect the horse’s frame too early or incorrectly.

To correct this fault, ride the canter energetically forwards and the moment of suspension and the 3-beat rhythm will magically re-appear.

Related Read: How to Correct a Four-Beat Canter

3 – The horse is crooked in the canter

Due to the natural canter sequence, where the horse’s legs on the inside travel in front of the legs on the outside, the horse is predisposed to bringing his quarters in during canter. This is because much easier for the horse to come crooked than to sit on his haunches and use his hocks. So, he brings his quarters in from the track and canters like a crab.

Because of this natural crookedness, the canter should always be ridden with a slight feeling of shoulder-fore.

The aim is to bring the horse’s shoulders in slightly so that his inside foreleg tracks in front of his inside hindleg.

Related Reads:

4 – Rushing in the medium and extended canter

When asking the horse to lengthen the strides, for either a medium or extended canter, it’s not uncommon to see the horse rushing and just moving at a quicker tempo rather than actually lengthening the stride.

This fault can be caused by a lack of preparation, a loss of balance, and/or a lack of suppleness.

To help correct this problem, firstly make sure that the horse is loose and supple over his back and that he is free from tension. Secondly, prepare the horse diligently for the lengthening by encouraging him to step under with his hindlegs – this not only helps to balance the horse but also allows the horse to use his hindlegs to push himself upwards and forwards into the lengthened strides. And thirdly, keep the horse as balanced as possible by not asking for more lengthening than what the horse is capable of, or “firing” the horse into the extension.

Related Read: How to Teach Your Horse to Lengthen

5 – “Breaking” out of the canter

Unless there is a physical problem, such as pain, injury, and/or ill-fitting or unsuitable tack, a horse that breaks in the canter is usually either behind the rider’s leg, unbalanced, or a combination of both.

Once you have ruled out all the possible physical causes, a good exercise is to ride transitions (such as canter – trot – canter and working canter – medium canter – working canter) on a large 20-meter circle, focusing on the horse responding promptly to your forward leg aids.

The circle and transitions will help to encourage the horse to step under more with his inside hind leg, therefore helping to balance the horse, and the prompt responses to your leg aids will help to keep the horse thinking forwards.

Related Reads:

6 – Incorrect canter lead

There are two ways in which you could find yourself cantering on the incorrect leading leg.

  1. An incorrect canter strike-off.
  2. The horse changes lead during the canter.

If you are repeatedly having one of these issues, it’s sensible to first check that there are no physical reasons which may be causing your horse to favor one lead over the other.

Assuming that there are no physical issues, then an incorrect canter lead usually happens because the horse is unbalanced, lacks suppleness, and/or lacks straightness.

Related Reads:

Canter exercises

Here are five exercises that you can use to help you train and improve upon your horse’s canter.

1 – Transitions

The best way to improve the horse’s canter is to not keep cantering.

Instead, ride frequent transitions into and out of the canter (e.g. canter-trot-canter or canter-walk-canter) as well as transitions within the canter pace itself (e.g. working canter – medium canter – collected canter).

During the upward transitions, the horse is encouraged to ‘push’ more from the hindlegs, and during the downward transitions, the horse is encouraged to ‘sit’ more on the hindlegs. Both of these qualities will improve the horse’s balance and carrying capacity, and add quality to the overall frame and canter gait.

During the transitions, make sure the strike-offs are fluent and into the contact, and that the horse allows your balancing half-halts to come through.

A helpful tip is to find sitting trot a few strides earlier before initiating the canter aid and strike-off. This helps to avoid any sudden impact of weight on the horse’s back as he is working out where to place his legs.

Related Reads:

2 – Ride forwards!

Although you are riding the canter for the purpose of a dressage test, it should still have enough power and impulsion contained inside of it to be able to pop a decent-sized fence. Sadly, many riders make the mistake of slowing the canter down which reduces the quality of the gait.

Instead, ride the canter energetically forwards. Not only will this create a very good supplying effect, but it will also encourage the horse to step under and have a positive effect on the activity of his hindlegs and the roundness of his frame.

3 – Counter-canter

Counter-canter is the regular 3-beat canter on the outside lead. For example, if the horse is on the right rein, then the horse would be going in the direction right, but the canter would be leading with the left foreleg.

The value of the counter-canter lies in its suppling, engaging, straightening, and collecting effects and it’s an excellent exercise for improving the quality of the horse’s true canter.

NOTE: Counter-canter should only be introduced once the horse’s working canter feels rhythmical, balanced, and secure.

Related Read: How to Ride Counter Canter

4 – Pole work

Cantering over poles offers the following benefits:

  • Helps to improve the horse’s back mobility and strength.
  • Encourages roundness over the horse’s back and topline.
  • Promotes an equal length and height of stride.
  • Helps to strengthen the horse’s hindquarters.
  • Improves the horse’s coordination, rhythm, and overall balance.
  • Can help to recover a lost moment of suspension and correct a 4-beat canter.
  • Encourages engagement and strengthening of the horse’s abdominal muscles.
  • Helps in raising the horse’s forehand.

As a guide, the distance between the canter poles should be between 2.6meters and 3.2meters. To encourage the horse to shorten and collected the canter strides, you can place the poles closer together. And to encourage the horse to lengthen the strides and open his frame, you can place the poles further apart.

Related Reads:

5 – Lateral exercises

Almost every lateral exercise can be used to help improve the horse’s suppleness, straightness, balance, and engagement, and they include:

Regardless of the pace that they are ridden in, these exercises will help develop symmetry in the horse’s body and limbs, encourage throughness and elasticity, and promote a more uphill cadence. All of these qualities will help to improve the horse’s overall way of going and improve the quality of the horse’s canter.

In conclusion

The horse’s canter is a 3-beat gait with a clear moment of suspension. It’s an important gait for the competitive dressage rider since so many test movements, such as flying changes and canter pirouettes, require a quality canter.

The goal is to train the horse to maintain a clear and expressive moment of suspension and to enable him to transfer his weight back onto well-paced supportive hind legs. This enables the horse to achieve a good balance within the pace, whether that be a working, medium, extended, 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 light, rhythmical, energetic, and uphill strides.

Related Reads:

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