A problem often experienced by dressage riders at all levels is that of a weak canter.
If the canter is lacking power, the correct rhythm and sequence can easily become corrupted, leading to poor marks.
However, if the rider tries for too much power, the canter and the transitions around it become rough and unbalanced.
So, how can you make your horse’s canter stronger, without compromising on the quality of the pace and the horse’s balance?
The correct canter
The canter is a pace of 3-time. This means that it should have cadenced, uphill strides, followed by a moment of suspension.
If the moment of suspension is missing, the rhythm becomes 4-time, which is a serious fault in the pace and will be heavily penalized in the competition arena.
The canter is the most important gait for a dressage horse, especially if the rider’s intention is to train him to advanced level or beyond.
So much depends on the horse’s ability to ‘sit’ and carry himself for the purpose of movements such as the canter zig-zags, pirouettes, and flying changes in sequence.
On the dressage score sheets, there is a directives column (British Dressage) and the first line begins with ‘quality of the canter’. This 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 under the body, in order to support the developing collection and compression.
Developing a strong canter
In order to develop a strong canter that would enable a horse to progress to a higher level, he must learn to move his balance back more onto the hind legs – in other words, they must come more under the horse’s body to provide support.
As a product of this increased engagement, the horse’s body will develop a more ‘uphill’ appearance, as he will have to contain more energy in a smaller area.
Once the horse has learned to collect the canter and ‘sit’ on his hind legs, he will be able to maintain a good balance in a shorter, heightened canter, making advanced movements, such as pirouettes, achievable.
When the balance of the horse is good, the rider can position themselves in the deepest part of the saddle and appear to effortlessly bring the horse through the most difficult movements, creating a picture of true harmony. The quality of a collected canter like this is worthy of a high mark.
How to enhance the quality of the canter and progress the training
Here are some pointers on how to help the horse move forward in his training to enhance the quality of the canter and develop a stronger pace.
- Keep the horse sharp and attentive to your ‘go’ aids and restraining aids.
- Ride plenty of transitions between the paces and within the canter itself.
- Be analytical as to how supple the horse is laterally through the body and through the poll.
- Keep the horse supple so you can keep him straight, and vice versa.
- Feel the placement of the hind legs in the canter whilst alternating movements such as the shoulder-in, travers, and renvers.
- Keep the suppleness and balance using counter canter through shorter turns.
- Change the frame frequently. If the horse ‘sits’ in canter fairly easily, he will need to stretch and lower the neck often to alleviate the back muscles whilst in canter.
Incorporate all of the above in various combinations and feel the development happening.
Feel the horse coming together and improving his balance and collection and feel how this enables you to refine your aids and timing.
In order to progress up through the levels, develop a better balance and true collection, the horse must have a strong canter.
You can train your horse to achieve this through systematic and regular training as per the guidelines given above.
However, it is important not to expect or demand too much too soon; thoughtful, methodical training is the way to go.