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How to Enhance the Quality of Your Horse’s Canter

quality of canter dressage

Dressage horses are selected and purposely bred to have natural, high-quality, and uphill paces. And the better their natural paces, the higher the price tag. 

However, if your budget doesn’t stretch to buying the ready-made article (and it’s not cheap), there are ways to increase what nature has given your own horse and enhance the quality of his canter. 

So, in this article, we will discuss what a quality canter is, why you want to have one, and how to go about enhancing the quality of your own horse’s canter. 

What is a correct canter?

The correct canter should be three beats, followed by a clear moment of suspension when all your horse’s hooves are off the ground. 

To create those three beats, your horse’s footfalls should be as follows:

  1. outside hind
  2. diagonal pair of the inside hind and outside fore
  3. inside fore (the canter leading leg)

The above sequence is then followed by that moment of suspension before re-commencing.

If the moment of suspension is missing, the canter becomes four-beat, which is a severe fault in the pace and will be heavily penalized in the competition arena.

Related Read: How to Correct a Four-Beat Canter

What is a quality canter?

A quality canter is one where your horse has learned to move his balance back more onto his hind legs. In other words, your horse’s hind legs step further underneath his body, towards his center of gravity, to provide support and to store energy and power. 

NOTE: This requires greater strength and suppleness and is, therefore, relative to your horse’s level of training. For example, an advanced horse will be expected to take more weight on its hind legs compared to a novice horse. 

Stepping under increases your horse’s engagement, develops a more uphill appearance, and allows him to contain more energy on his hind legs, which he can then use to push upwards (for a collected canter) or push forwards (for an extended canter). 

At the same time, your horse’s strides should remain regular, light, and cadenced, with a good amount of activity, and he should demonstrate mental and physical relaxation so that his back can fully swing. 

  • Cadenced is an accentuated rhythm with springy impulsion and expression.
  • Activity 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.)

A canter that fits this description is worthy of a high mark. 

Why do you want to have a quality canter?

If you intend to train your horse to an advanced level, the quality of your horse’s canter is a key consideration. Many dressage test movements depend on your horse’s ability to “sit” and “push” in the canter, such as the canter zig-zags, canter pirouettes, flying changes in sequence, and the extended canter.  

Also, 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,’ even at the lower levels. 

The dressage judge is looking for a strong canter where your horse can maintain the correct rhythm and is carrying himself with active and well-placed hind legs, showing a nice height through his front legs with a good shoulder action. This enables your horse to achieve a good balance within the pace, whether that be a working, medium, extended, or collected canter.

When the quality and balance of the canter are good, you can then position yourself in the deepest part of the saddle and appear to effortlessly ride your horse through the most challenging movements, creating a picture of true harmony. 

How to enhance the quality of your horse’s canter 

Here are five steps to help you move forward in your horse’s training to enhance the quality of his canter and develop a stronger pace.

Step 1 – Canter fundamentals 

Before attempting to increase the quality, it’s paramount that the fundamentals of your horse’s basic canter and his overall way of going are correct. 

Your horse must;

  • have a three-beat canter with the correct sequence of footfalls (see above),
  • have the ability to work in a regular and consistent rhythm (no speeding up or slowing down), 
  • be working correctly from your leg into your hand (back to front), 
  • and have a basic understanding of the half-halt. 

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Riding the canter

During the canter, your horse will “rock” between his hind legs and his front legs. This motion can cause some riders to rock their upper body back and forth; this should be avoided. 

Instead, keep your upper body perpendicular to the ground and absorb your horse’s movement through your hips. Stay sat up in the center of the saddle; do not lean to one side or twist in the saddle. 

Your legs should hang down naturally, and unless you are aiding your horse, they should maintain a passive contact with your horse’s sides without gripping, and your hands should remain steady and elastic and breathe with your horse’s movement. 

Step 2 – Keep riding forwards

Although you are training your horse’s canter for the purpose of a dressage test, it should still have enough power and impulsion contained inside of it for you to be able to jump a decent-sized fence. 

Sadly, many riders make the common mistake of slowing the canter down in an attempt to balance or collect it. Unfortunately, all this does is reduce the quality of the pace and corrupt your horse’s canter sequence, leading to an incorrect canter and poor marks. 

Instead, ride the canter energetically forward. Not only will this create an excellent suppling effect, but it will also encourage your horse to step under and positively affect the activity of his hindlegs and the roundness of his frame.

NOTE: Remember that forward does not mean fast. If you simply try to speed the canter up, the pace will become unbalanced, and the transitions around it will become rough. 

Related Read: How to Get Your Horse Working Forwards, Not Faster

Step 3 – Keep your horse supple and straight

These two attributes, suppleness and straightness, are paramount to enhancing the quality of your horse’s canter because:

  1. Only a straight horse can engage both his hind legs equally and take an even weight in the contact.
  2. Only a supple horse will have the ability to stretch his hind legs sufficiently further under his body. 

On top of that, straightness and suppleness are interlined. 

Your horse is said to be straight when his body is aligned with the path he is following.

  • When your horse moves on a straight line, such as the centerline, his body is aligned straight from nose to tail, with his hind feet following in the tracks left by his front feet.
  • When your horse moves on a curved line, such as a circle, your horse’s hind feet should still follow the tracks left by his front feet. Although your horse should bend uniformly to follow the arc of the circle, his body should still be in alignment and, therefore, straight.

Your horse is said to be supple when he can move his neck, haunches, and shoulders equally in both directions without resistance, and his whole body is loose and flexible. 

When supple, this makes it easier for your horse to keep his longitudinal axis in line with the curved or straight track he is following and, therefore, helps him stay straight. 

So, for your horse to be straight, he must be supple.

If, at any point during your training, your horse becomes crooked, tense and/or stiff, then the quality of your horse’s canter will not improve. Therefore, before continuing, you must re-affirm your horse’s current level of straightness and full-body suppleness.

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Step 4 – Circles, transitions, counter-canter, and lateral movements

Incorporating circles, transitions, counter-canter, and lateral movement in various combinations will aid the development of your horse’s canter, improving his balance and collection and enabling you to refine your aids and timing.  


Circles are an exceptionally useful training tool fundamental to your horse’s progression.

A correctly ridden circle encourages your horse’s inside hind leg to step further underneath, thereby helping to improve his balance and engagement and strengthen his hindquarters. 

Also, the bend required on the circles helps to improve your horse’s suppleness and throughness and helps you to control the tempo of the pace. 

Related Read: How to Use Circles in Dressage Training


Ironically, the best way to improve the quality of your horse’s canter is not to keep cantering. 

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

  • During the upward transitions, your horse is encouraged to step under and ‘push’ from his hind legs. 
  • During the downward transitions, your horse is encouraged to step under and ‘sit’ on his hind legs. 

These attributes will improve your horse’s balance and carrying capacity and add quality to his overall frame and canter gait.


  1. During the transitions, ensure the strike-offs are fluent and into the contact and that your horse allows your balancing half-halts to come through.
  2. It can be helpful to take sitting trot a few steps earlier when transitioning from trot into canter to avoid any sudden impact of weight on your horse’s back as he works out where to place his legs.

Related Read: How to Progress With Transitions


Counter-canter is the regular 3-beat canter on the outside lead. For example, if you are on the right rein, then your horse would be going in the direction right, but cantering in the left lead. 

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: You should only introduce counter-canter once your horse’s working canter feels rhythmical, balanced, and secure.

Related Read: How to Ride Counter Canter

Lateral movements 

You can use lateral exercises to help improve your horse’s suppleness, straightness, balance, and engagement, and they include:

TIP: Feel the placement of your horse’s hind legs in the canter while alternating movements such as shoulder-in, travers, and half-pass. 

These lateral exercises will help develop symmetry in your horse’s body and limbs, encourage throughness and elasticity, and promote a more uphill cadence. All of these qualities will help improve your horse’s overall way of going and enhance the quality of his canter. 

Related Read: How to Introduce Lateral Work (And in What Order)

Step 5 – Stretching 

Riders frequently allow their horses to stretch in trot, especially with that being a movement that appears in some dressage tests, but allowing your horse to stretch in canter can be just as valuable. 

Allowing your horse to take the contact forward and down will help to improve your horse’s throughness, connection, engagement, strength, and overall body suppleness. 

Stretching is also an enjoyable exercise for your horse, and you can use it as a reward between the more challenging work of circles, transitions, counter-canter, and lateral movement. It also prevents your horse’s muscles from becoming tired and tense, which can happen if you ask your horse to work in the same frame for an extended amount of time.

Here’s how to do it.  

  1. Ride a large 20-meter in a rhythmical canter. 
  2. Sit light in the saddle, possibly even riding in rising canter. (Do not sit deep and heavy, as this can prevent your horse from using his back fully during the stretch.) 
  3. Allow the reins to slip slowly through your fingers so your horse can take the reins forward and down. You must maintain the contact; don’t give the reins away.
  4. Keep riding the canter forward while allowing your horse to lift his back and stretch his entire topline. 

Keep progressing

Continue working through the above steps, using a combination of school movements interspersed with frequent stretching, and gradually over time, the quality of your horse’s canter will improve.  

In conclusion

A problem often experienced by dressage riders at all levels is that of a weak and poor-quality canter. And to progress successfully up the dressage levels and develop a better balance and true collection, your horse must have a strong and high-quality canter. 

The good news is that you can enhance this pace through correct and systematic training.

First, you must establish a correct and regular canter rhythm, ensure he is working correcting from back to front, and has a basic understanding of the half-halt. Once you have established those fundamentals, you can use circles, transitions, counter-canter, and lateral movements, combined with frequent stretching, to help build strength, lightness, expression, and elasticity in your horse’s canter strides. 

However, it is important not to expect or demand too much too soon; thoughtful, methodical training is the way to go.

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