Have you ever seen the judge’s comment, “four-beat” on one of your score sheets when referring to the canter? If you have, what does that mean?
In this article, we answer that question. We also explain why the canter sometimes becomes four-beat and show you what you can do to correct the problem.
What is a correct canter?
Canter can be a tricky pace to get right, and it’s often a big mark-loser in dressage tests.
First of all, let’s take a look at what constitutes a correct canter and find out what the dressage judge is looking for.
The canter is a three-time gait. You should be able to count one-two-three, one-two-three as your horse is cantering.
There are four variations of the canter gait:
1. Working canter
The working canter is the pace that is demanded at lower grade dressage tests.
In working canter, the horse works forward through his back into the contact with plenty of impulsion and “jump.”
The canter rhythm is clearly three-beat.
2. Collected canter
In the collected canter, the steps are shorter and more elevated than in the working pace but with no less impulsion and “jump” and clearly in three-beat.
Related Read: How to Ride Collected Canter
3. Medium canter
In medium canter, the horse lengthens his stride and frame to cover more ground while remaining in a good uphill balance and without increasing the tempo of the pace. Again, the canter rhythm is clearly three-beat.
Related Read: How to Ride Medium Canter
4. Extended canter
The extended canter maintains the same three-beat rhythm as in the other variants of the gait. However, the horse covers the maximum ground possible without losing his balance or frame.
Related Read: How to Ride Extended Canter
So, as you can see, no matter what variant of the canter you’re riding, the pace must have the same correct sequence.
The correct canter sequence
The sequence of footfalls in the canter is as follows:
Canter sequence with the left foreleg leading:
- Right hind
- Left hind and right foreleg together
- Left foreleg (leading leg)
- Moment of suspension
Canter sequence with the right foreleg leading:
- Left hind
- Right hind and left foreleg together
- Right foreleg (leading leg)
- Moment of suspension
What’s a “disunited” canter?
The canter should always be “united” or “true.”
In a true canter, the leading foreleg and leading hind leg appear to be moving on the same side. In a disunited canter, the leading hind leg appears to be on the opposing side to the foreleg that’s leading.
As a rider, you can usually detect a disunited canter right away, as it feels “lumpy” and uncomfortable.
What are the canter phases?
A good canter has six distinct phases:
- Outside hind leg hits the ground
- Diagonal pair hits the ground
- Outside hind is raised, leaving only the diagonal pair on the ground
- Inside foreleg lands on the ground
- Diagonal pair lifts off the ground, leaving the inside foreleg
- All four legs briefly leave the ground in the moment of suspension
What is a four-beat canter?
A four-beat canter happens when the canter gait becomes irregular. The diagonal pair of the canter sequence is broken, and the gait becomes “rolling” and stiff, appearing as a cross between the trot and the canter (sometimes nicknamed a “tranter”).
When the canter becomes four-beat, it often goes disunited too.
In dressage, a four-beat or disunited canter is a very serious fault and will be heavily penalized.
What causes a four-beat canter?
There are a few causes of a four-beat canter. Let’s explore the main ones below.
#1 – Lack of impulsion
A four-beat canter is frequently seen when a rider attempts to collect the horse by stopping him from going forward in the mistaken belief that slowing the canter will create collection.
As previously mentioned, the collected canter needs just as much impulsion and “jump” as the other canter variants.
When there is not enough impulsion, the horse tries to keep cantering but ends up shuffling along in a flat, four-beat gait instead.
These horses are often behind the vertical, too, with an over-shortened, cramped neck.
A horse that goes in this way will be heavily penalized by the dressage judge.
How to fix it
So, there’s an obvious quick-fix to that cause of the four-beat canter; kick on and ride forwards!
Make sure that the trot or walk that precedes the canter is active and forward-thinking. If the trot or walk is going nowhere, the canter will follow suit.
#2 – Rider interference
If you use too much rein to balance the canter, you are effectively riding with the handbrake on. No matter how much leg you use, your horse will not go forward, and you won’t create any more energy. Consequently, you will end up with a slow, flat, lackluster canter that tends to be four-beat.
How to fix it
Ease your hand, keep your legs on but passive, and use your body weight and your core muscles to keep you upright and in balance with your horse.
Follow the movement with your seat, and don’t push and drive the horse; let him find his own balance without your interference.
#3 – Stiffness
Horses that are stiff longitudinally or laterally are more prone to gait irregularities than horses that swing through a relaxed back and have a uniform bend around circles.
When a horse is tight through the back, possibly due to tension or poor schooling techniques, i.e., pulling the horse’s head into an outline, the horse’s back will be hollow, his canter will be flat, and he will most likely develop a four-beat canter and a lateral walk.
How to fix it
Take a few steps back in your training and focus on the dressage Scales of Training, especially Rhythm and Suppleness. Once the horse is working in a good rhythm and is loose and supple through his back, the four-beat canter should correct itself.
Start by working in an active, forward rising trot with the horse working from behind into your outside rein. Ride a large circle, encouraging the horse to stretch through his back and neck to seek the contact. Don’t try to hold the horse into an outline with your hand. Your aim is purely to encourage the energy to flow forward through the horse’s back.
Once you have the horse working in that way, move on to the canter. Concentrate on achieving a forward canter stride. Stay on your circle, and lighten your seat to allow the horse’s back to swing. The canter should immediately return to a pure three-beat rhythm and correct sequence.
#4 – Physical injury
Sometimes, if a horse has a back or pelvic injury, he can develop a four-beat or disunited canter. That can be because the injury has gone unnoticed, and the horse is in discomfort, or it could be that the injury has healed, but muscle wastage has occurred, leaving the horse weak behind the saddle and unable to cope with the demands of a true collected canter.
How to fix it
Your first port of call should be your vet. Once the cause of the problem has been identified, a course of treatment can be started. That may involve physiotherapy and systematic strengthening exercises to build the horse’s muscle mass during his recovery.
A four-beat canter is something that you must correct if you are to avoid scoring poor marks in dressage tests.
Unless your horse has a soundness problem, in which case you should seek the advice of a vet or qualified equine physiotherapist, a four-beat canter is usually caused by the horse not working forward correctly through his back.
To fix the problem, go back to basics and focus on training your horse as per the dressage Scales of Training.
Has your horse developed a four-beat canter? If so, we’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.