When your horse breaks out of his canter during a dressage test and falls back into trot, you’re pretty much guaranteed a mark of 4 at best.
In this article, we take a look at why horses break the canter and give you some advice on what you can do to stop that from happening.
Why do horses break the canter?
There are a few reasons for a horse to break the canter and fall back into trot.
- Physical problems
- Lack of understanding
- Lack of balance
Let’s take a look at each of those problems individually and discuss potential solutions.
1. Physical problems
Horses that have back problems or joint issues find it very difficult to maintain the canter. Often, physical issues manifest as a break in the canter because it’s more comfortable for the horse to trot.
Other common canter problems include the horse changing legs behind and becoming disunited before breaking into trot, refusing to pick up the correct canter lead, and changing leads.
If your horse suddenly begins breaking into trot from canter when that has not previously been a problem, it’s advisable to have him checked by a qualified equine bodyworker or by your vet to make sure that there is no physical reason for the canter issues.
Some horses are just plain lazy!
It’s far easier to flop around the arena in a lackluster trot than it is to keep on cantering, so the horse breaks the canter.
If you suspect that’s the reason for your horse’s reluctance to remain in the canter, it’s time for you to get tough! As with any pace or movement, your horse must learn that he is to remain in that pace until you instruct him otherwise.
He is not allowed to just throw the towel in because he feels like it!
Judges often see riders nagging at their horse with their leg on every single stride, simply to keep the horse in canter. If you’re guilty of that, concentrate on sitting still once the transition to canter has happened, and keep your legs passively on your horse’s sides.
The rhythm, tempo, and energy of the canter must remain the same.
The moment that you feel the horse beginning to drop behind your leg, get after him with your leg, perhaps give him a touch with your spur, or flick him with your whip behind your leg to get a reaction and correct him.
As soon as the horse picks up the canter again, reward him by sitting still, taking your aids off, and patting him.
The bottom line is that, once you’ve asked the horse to canter, he remains in canter until you tell him otherwise.
3. Lack of understanding
Sometimes, young horses can easily misunderstand a half-halt that was intended to balance the canter for a signal to make a downward transition, especially if the rider overcooks the half-halt.
That can also happen with more experienced horses, especially if the canter lacks impulsion in the first place.
So, if your horse breaks the canter, ask yourself what happened right beforehand. Did you apply a half-halt? Did you momentarily tip forward and lose your balance, confusing the horse?
Make sure that your aids are crystal clear to avoid confusion that may cause your horse to break his canter.
4. Lack of, or loss of, balance
Probably the most common reason for a horse to break in the canter is a loss of balance.
Take, for example, an exercise that appears in British Dressage Prelim and Novice level tests where the horse is asked to canter across the diagonal line and make a transition to trot just as he meets the track.
Many horses begin to lose their balance as soon as they leave the safety net of the arena fence and venture out into the open, with the result that they break into trot, usually well before they reach the track.
Achieving balance in the canter cannot be accomplished overnight; it’s an ongoing process that develops through systematic schooling along the dressage Scales of Training.
Let’s take a look at the individual training scales and see how flaws in each can show in your horse’s canter, potentially causing him to lose his balance and break.
Losing the canter rhythm or tempo as you ride through corners and around small circles can cause the horse to lose his balance and break the canter.
If the horse is stiff through his back, he is more likely to become hollow, lose his hind legs, and break the canter.
Horses that lack balance tend to be heavy in the contact, relying on the rider’s hand for balance instead of carrying themselves.
A horse that is on his forehand is more likely to stumble and lose confidence in the canter and is more likely to break.
If the horse is unbalanced, it’s likely that he will rush in the canterwork.
Speed and impulsion are not the same!
When the horse rushes away from the rider’s leg, the energy cannot be connected through the horse’s back and utilized to create a better balance.
- The Scales of Training: Scale 4 – Impulsion
- How to Develop Your Horse’s Engagement in the Canter
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Work More Forwards, But Not Faster
The horse that cannot bend through a corner or around a circle with his legs on the same track as his shoulders will always be unbalanced.
To avoid bending through his body, the horse will either push his quarters out, lose his outside shoulder, or bring his quarters in, all of which lead to a loss of balance and canter breaks.
At the lower levels, collection refers to engagement and balance.
If you cannot “collect” your horse between your leg and hand to bring his hind legs more underneath his center of gravity, he will lack balance in the canter and will be more likely to break into trot to save himself.
- The Scales of Training: Scale 6 – Collection
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Straightness and Collection
- How to Ride Collected Canter
So, you can see that working systematically through the training scales will ultimately result in a more balanced, uphill canter. The horse will be more confident and will, therefore, be much less likely to break in the canter.
Exercises to improve balance in the canterwork
Here are a few useful exercises that you can practice to help prevent those annoying canter breaks.
Exercise #1 – Improving balance on circles and through corners
To ride in balance through corners and around small circles, you need to use the half-halt and establish true, correct bend.
So, as you approach the corner about 6 meters out, apply a half-halt to bring the horse’s quarters more underneath him. Make sure that you have the correct bend before you reach the arena fence before the corner or start of the circle. That will also help to engage the inside hind leg and balance the horse.
Before you begin making the turn, push more weight on your inside seat bone, taking care not to collapse your inside hip, and keep your inside leg on the girth. That encourages the horse to bend through the corner or onto the circle and brings his inside hind leg further forward.
Your outside rein needs to be there to prevent the horse’s shoulder from falling out, but you must allow him a small degree of inside flexion through his neck.
Your outside leg needs to be kept behind your girth to guard the horse’s hindquarters and prevent them from swinging out, keeping the horse straight and moving on just one track.
Throughout the exercise, keep your own position, and support the horse by using your leg and seat, not your hands.
Exercise #2 – Shorten the canter strides
A very effective way of improving balance in the canter and, therefore, preventing the horse from breaking is to shorten the canter stride. That stops the horse from rushing away from you onto his forehand and leaning on your hands.
As you approach each corner of the arena, use a half-halt to shorten two canter strides before allowing the horse to canter forward again.
Once the horse understands the exercise, keep the rhythm and tempo of the canter and add two extra steps between each marker around the arena.
To add the extra canter strides, you will need to slow the tempo of the pace slightly. That’s fine, as long as you keep your leg on to maintain the energy of the canter. If you forget to use your leg, the horse may misunderstand your aids and make a transition to trot, which is just what you want to avoid!
Exercise #3 – Forward and back
Riding transitions within the canter will help to create more power, lift the horse’s forehand, and improve his balance, making it less likely that he will try to break.
Begin by riding a 20-meter circle, and ask the horse to take a few bigger canter strides so that he has to engage his hindquarters to generate more power while his hocks become more active too.
Now, use a half-halt to collect the canter, “thinking walk” with your position and reins and canter with your leg.
Your aim is to slow the canter but maintain the energy and jump of the pace.
That improves the horse’s balance, making it less likely that he will break. This is also a very useful exercise for lazy horses, keeping them thinking forward and creating extra energy too.
Unless there is a physical problem, a horse that breaks in the canter is usually either lazy or unbalanced or a combination of both.
You can use the exercises in this article to improve your horse’s balance, which will ultimately stop him from dropping out of the canter.
Does your horse break his canter? Please share your experience and training tips with us in the comments box below.