When you begin riding dressage tests from British Dressage Preliminary level onwards, you will be asked to show “working canter.”
For most young horses and those changing disciplines, for example, ex-racers, canter is the most difficult gait to master.
In this article, you can learn everything you need to know about how to ride a good working canter that’s sure to impress the dressage judge!
What is working canter?
There are four variants of the canter:
Working canter forms the other canter variants’ foundation.
Canter is a three-beat pace, which includes a clear moment of suspension.
The correct sequence of footfalls when the horse is cantering to the left is:
- right hind initiates the canter sequence, touching down first
- the diagonal pair of the left hind leg and right foreleg follow
- followed by the leading left foreleg
That sequence of footfalls is followed a clear moment of suspension when all four of the horse’s legs are off the ground at once. When the horse is cantering to the right, the sequence is reversed.
What does the dressage judge want to see?
When assessing the working canter, the dressage judge wants to see that the horse is working correctly in line with the dressage Scales of Training and is demonstrating:
- The correct sequence of footfalls
- A steady tempo and even rhythm
- A clear moment of suspension
- A loose, supple back
- An elastic contact and a round, steady frame
- Plenty of impulsion and “jump” to the strides
- Straightness on straight lines and uniform bend around circles and through turns
- An uphill balance
- Relaxation and harmony with the rider
If the horse demonstrates all those qualities in his working canter, the judge should award a very good mark!
Common faults that lose marks and how to fix them
There are several common faults that lose marks for a working canter:
1 – Incorrect sequence of footfalls
Perhaps the most common mark-loser in the working canter is an incorrect sequence of footfalls.
That usually happens when the rider stops riding the horse forward in an attempt to balance him.
A lack of impulsion leads to flat, shuffling steps, and you’ll probably get the comments, “losing regularity” and “lacks jump” on your scoresheet.
The moment of suspension is often absent, and the horse appears to be “trotting behind” rather than bounding forward and pinging off the ground.
2 – Incorrect rhythm
Incorrect rhythm is generally related to a lack of impulsion.
The horse may develop a lateral, two-time rhythm where the legs on each side swing forward together, and the horse moves like a camel. Sometimes, the rhythm becomes almost four-time, where the horse is moving so slowly that he is pretty much walking!
In cases where the canter sequence is corrupted and/or the rhythm is incorrect, you will be hit with a quadruple-whammy of lost marks:
- For each movement where the canter rhythm or sequence is incorrect, you will most likely be given a mark of 4.
- The collective mark for the horse’s paces will be adversely affected.
- The collective mark for impulsion will be low.
- If the judge deems that your riding is ineffective and caused the problems with the working canter’s quality, you will also get a poor mark for your riding!
How to fix it
Begin by checking your rein contact to ensure that you’re not riding with your “handbrake” on. To do that, keep your legs on, and ease your hand slightly to allow the horse to move forward. At this stage, don’t worry too much if the horse loses his balance; you can correct that later. The most important thing here is that the horse works with more energy and is “allowed” to move away from your leg.
Ride plenty of transitions to sharpen your horse to the leg aids. You can ride transitions from walk to canter, from trot to canter, or even from rein-back to canter, depending on your horse’s level of training.
Once the horse is working more forward and swinging through his back, the sequence and rhythm should correct themselves, and the moment of suspension should reappear, as if by magic!
3 – Balance is “downhill”
If the working canter lacks engagement, the horse will probably lose his balance and fall onto his forehand. That problem is commonly seen in young horses that are not yet strong enough to take their weight on their hind legs.
Basically, the horse pulls himself along on his shoulders instead of bending his hock joints and “sitting down” and pushing, carrying the weight of himself and his rider in a more balanced way.
How to fix it
To develop a more uphill balance in the working canter, you need to develop the horse’s engagement.
Before we discuss what we expect from the horse, let’s take a look at the rider!
- To feel the horse’s suppleness, sequence, and moment of suspension underneath you, you must have an independent seat so that you can sit deep in the saddle without relying on the reins for balance.
- Your hands must remain still so that the rein contact is even and quiet.
- Your lower back and core must be supple enough for your seat to follow the canter while your upper body remains upright and motionless.
- You must be able to give with both reins so that the horse can swing through his back without being blocked by your contact.
- Your inside hip must be slightly in front of your outside one but not so much that your upper body twists.
If you can do all of the above, you should be able to ride a good half-halt, which is essential for balancing the canter and creating a secure uphill balance.
Use half-halts and transitions
A well-ridden half-halt is essential if you want to develop engagement in the working canter. Use the half-halt in conjunction with your driving leg and seat aids to catch and control the impulsion you create, transferring the horse’s weight back and more onto his hindquarters.
Transitions can also be used to balance the horse and lighten the forehand. Again, make sure that the horse works forward from your legs in the correct three-beat rhythm, and ride lots of transitions, both on a straight line and on circles. For maximum effect, make the transitions close together. That has the effect of keeping the horse sharp to your leg aids and jumping through with his hindlegs to carry more weight and power himself uphill.
4 – Quarters-in
When the horse lacks balance and suppleness, he will often bring his quarters in from the track to avoid becoming more engaged.
Sometimes, the horse’s shoulders may slip to the outside, leaving the horse moving on three tracks, which is a serious fault.
How to fix it
To make the canter straight from the word go, try using a shoulder-fore position when you ask for the transition into canter. Once you’re in working canter, use shoulder-fore positioning to bring the horse’s shoulders in very slightly, effectively keeping his hindquarters out on the track so that he can’t become crooked.
With more advanced horses, you can use shoulder-in. That not only keeps the horse straight but also demands more bend, helping to bring the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath his body, thus improving his balance too.
The working canter is included in dressage tests from British Dressage Preliminary level upward and forms the other canter variants’ foundation.
Focus on the rhythm, straightness, and impulsion of the pace, and concentrate on systematically schooling your horse along the dressage Scales of Training to help to develop a good working canter.