Improving the Canter - Part One

Renee Swanepoel
N Dip Equine Studies, SANEF Level 1 Instructor

Many of the questions I receive about horses have something to do with canter. “The horse won’t canter on the right leg; the horse just goes faster and won’t go into canter; the horse can’t maintain canter; the horse gets heavy in the hands in canter; the horse disunites behind; and so on and so on…..” I see the canter as a symptom of the rest of the horse’s work, be it at walk or trot, and it is very seldom that a horse has a big problem with canter but not with the other gaits. (In fact I would say it is unheard of!)
It is vital that the rider understand the gait and how the horse needs to use himself in order to correctly school the canter.

The canter is a 3 beat gait, with a moment of suspension. This means that at one point of the canter, the horse has all four feet off the ground. The most important thing to remember about canter is that the inside hind leg is very important in the strike off. There is some debate as to whether a canter starts with the inside hind leg, or not, however if you imagine that the horse will push with his outside hind leg to allow the inside hind to step in underneath his body thereby starting the canter process, it will suffice. Outise hind pushes to allow inside diagonal pairs to move together and finally inside fore leg. (Outside hind, inside hind and outside fore and then indise fore) This is completed with the moment of suspension and the whole cycle begins again. In a normal canter, the horse should lead with his inside fore leg. This means that the inside front leg looks like it is in front of the other front leg when it comes down. If the horse was cantering to the left, for example, he would start by bringing his left hind leg deep underneath him, then his right hind and left front leg (which is placed further forward) and lastly his right front leg before being suspended and starting again. If a horse canters with his outside leg leading, it is called counter canter and although it is a useful balancing exercise when ridden correctly, may lead to a stumble and fall of the novice rider and horse under the wrong circumstances.

Important in the canter is an elastic back, clean and regular beats and a steady rhythm on the correct lead. It is also important that the horse remains straight - that is to say his hind feet should land on or just in front of , his fore feet. Most horses will bring the hindquarter to the inside of the track as a way of getting out of work, and the rider should be made aware of this.
Often by bringing the shoulder slightly into the track, the horse can be improved. (ie Shoulder fore in the canter)

Important qualities in the gait, as in all other gaits are the following:

- Smooth and balanced transition
- Consistent rhythm and regular tempo (Rhythm: the actual hoof beats of the gait and should occur at equal distance and timing; Tempo: refers to the speed of the rhythm and can be slow, medium or quick. A common fault in canter is the ‘four beat’ canter where the inside hind leg touches the ground before the diagonal front leg – usually because the rider is too restraining in front.)
- Impulsion (Impulsion: thrust and NOT speed! It refers to how hard the horse is pushing with his legs and how much energy the gait has. A horse at piaffe can have great impulsion, yet not be moving fast.)
- Calmness and relaxation (All good athletes need a degree of physical relaxation in order move with ease, grace and coordination. Muscles need to be able to go through their normal cycle of contraction and relaxation in order to function properly. Tension blocks movement and wastes energy and can cause injury to the muscle tissue.)
- Balance (Balance: Having a rider on his back disturbs the natural balance of the horse and he needs to learn to adjust his center of gravity and carry his rider. Balance is split into vertical balance – head to toe – and lateral balance – left vs right side of the body.)
- Straightness (Straightness: Refers to the flight of each leg and the placement of the footfalls. They should not deviate left or right of each other and the hind legs should follow exactly the same track as the front legs – even when riding a bend! )
- Suppleness ( Suppleness: the ability of the horse to shift his balance smoothly forward and backward, as well as left and right without stiffness or resistance. It does not have to do with how easily the neck bends left or right, and often riders confuse this and as a result the horse ‘rubbernecks’ – ie beds from the wither to head, as opposed to through the entire body.)
- Freedom of movement (FOM: refers to the extent to which the horse can reach forward in movement from his hip joints and shoulders. A poorly fitting saddle often restricts shoulder movement and will be noticed not only in the gait, but by the lack of muscle just behind\ below the withers as is so often seen. Riders also too often try to ‘get the horse on the bit’ by sawing at the front end – they will often call it half halting – until the horse loses all forward movement, instead of allowing the horse freedom of movement and focusing on the impulsion coming from behind! The head is the last piece of the puzzle – when the other pieces are in place, the head just pops into position all on its own!)
- Lightness (Lightness: The horse’s ability to move with deftness, grace and agility and a horse that is light to ride is balanced and responsive. He does not require the rider nagging him constantly to keep him going correctly and waits for the next instruction with eagerness.)

Now that we know what kind of qualities a decent canter should have, let’s take a look at how one might achieve this!

The Canter Aid

Canter can be achieved from walk, halt and trot, depending on the level of training of horse and rider. In this instance we will look at a trot to canter transition as it is the one most often used by the novice and the basic principles will apply in every other canter transition.

The trot preceding the canter is almost more important than the strike-off itself, as it will determine the quality of the transition. The trot should be full of impulsion; the horse should be attentive and responding readily to the rider and in good balance. Good exercises that can be used to lead up to canter work include, serpentines (3 and 5 Loop, as well as with transitions on the centre line), voltes , trot to halt transitions, rein back, some sitting trot work, lengthening and collecting the trot strides, turn on the haunches and leg yield. These will shift the horse’s weight slowly onto his hind legs which as you will see is vital in achieving a good quality canter.

Every rider has been told to do a few strides of sitting trot before asking for canter but of course very few riders understand why this is important. If a rider was doing a walk to canter transition, the same principle applies – the rider should collect the walk slightly while at the same time creating more impulsion and sitting deeply in the saddle with a long, relaxed leg. When doing a sitting trot correctly, the rider is encouraging the horse to round his back a little under him and this causes the hind legs to step in under the horse a little more. From what we know about the first step in canter – that being that the inside hind leg needs to step in under the horse’s body deeply – it becomes apparent that by sitting for a few trot strides we are getting the horse to step in more under himself and that that will make the first canter step much easier for the horse as he is already stepping in more deeply under himself. It also prepares the horse mentally by telling him something is about to happen.

To ask for the canter strike-off, the rider:

 Sits deeply in the saddle
 Ensures that the horse is slightly bent in the direction of the canter
 Moves the outside leg slightly behind the girth
 Half halts the horse in preparation and
 Squeezes with the inside leg to ask for the canter

This is a very simplified list of aids – a more experienced rider will understand that more weight is born on the inside hip one and with the push into canter, it moves slightly forward. There is also a slight release on the inside rein at the moment of asking while restraining with the outside hand. For more Novice riders though, this tends to confuse them and they end up throwing the rein away while leaning over and forwards, which is of course not what we want.

The most common mistake when asking for the canter is that the rider leans forward and brings their weight out of the saddle. This will make the horse trot faster or collapse onto the forehand, making it physically impossible for the hind leg to step in under the horse and strike-off to occur. Weight in the saddle is vital if the horse is to shift his weight back and bring his leg underneath him.

When in the canter, the rider should be following the movement of the horse with the hips and lower back – this amounts to almost ‘wiping’ the saddle from back to front. I often tell riders to imagine they had a tail and that they should try and tuck their tails in underneath them with every stride. By following the canter in this way the rider is encouraging the horse to round his back with every stride, producing a better quality canter.

Observe the rider below:

Improving Canter

Instead of giving with her lower back and softening under the horse’s stride, she has hollowed slightly. Her left shoulder is also slightly in front of her right shoulder. Her saddle is too far forwards and her weight is thus placed on the front end of the horse’s back with her toe resting on the shoulder of the horse. Her weight is slightly off the horse’s back. She is gripping with her lower leg and this has resulted in the angle of her leg opening up from the hip, hence the toe pointing out. I would also venture a guess that she is rocking her upper body with every stride instead of absorbing the movement in the hips. Notice the effects of this on her horse – he is hollowing behind the saddle and this has caused his hind legs to trail out far behind him, in other words he is not tracking up well behind at all. See how he is not bringing his hind leg deep in underneath him? His tummy muscles are not working at all and you can see the big bulge underneath him. This will make him very hard to sit. His high neck carriage is as a result of his hollowing through his back. Her twisting has caused him to bend more in his neck and not enough through his back. See how the horse looks like he is running downhill? He is bearing more weight on his front end than his back end which will make a correct canter very difficult indeed and it is probably making the saddle slip even more forwards. I would guess that he is difficult to get a good transition out of and that once in canter, he runs along until he loses impulsion and breaks into a fast trot again. This is as a direct result of incorrect saddle placement and the rider not bringing her weight down onto his back and following his movement.

By contrast, this rider is faring better:

This rider is sitting tall with more weight on the horse’s back, following his movement, and it shows! See how he is working ‘uphill’ and you will also notice the much bigger step he has taken with his hind leg. His tummy muscles are contracting and he is much rounder behind the saddle which is what we need. His saddle is allowing more shoulder movement and is not restricting him as much as the previous horse. A canter transition would be much easier because more weight is carried behind and the downward transition will also not likely see the horse collapsing in front if the pair maintain this outline.

Another common fault is that the rider collapses one side in canter as in the following case:

As a result, the horse has dropped right down onto his inside shoulder. See how his hindquarter is tracking to the inside of his front end. The rider needs to sit right up, place more weight down the left leg and straighten the horse up behind.

When asking for the downward transition, the rider:

- Again sits deep with the seat and with a tall upper body
- Closes the leg around the horse into a slightly restricting hand to collect the canter and then restrict the hand further on the outside rein to bring the horse down into trot
- At the same time, brace the back (this entails ‘tucking your tail under you’ and sitting deep)
- The horse should drop behind into the transition and not drop in front
- Once trot is achieved, the rider should ride the horse actively forwards

Biggest problems encountered in the downward transition include the horse falling forwards onto the forehand, pulling the rider down with him; running on in the trot unbalanced and on the forehand ; or the horse flopping right down into walk or even halt without maintaining any forward movement. All of these problems can be attributed to either a rider problem, or a horse that is unbalanced and stiff and cannot carry himself properly through the movement.

In the next Part of this Article, we will look at the specific and targeted excercises that can be used to improve the canter.

1 comment:

James said...

Thank you for this interesting reading, I've been having problems with getting my Arab to Canter propperly and this has cleared up some of the issus, I've kept your pointers in mind and the last time I tried to get him to Canter he did so perfectly!

I was leaning forward and out of the saddleand was wondering why he wouldn't bring his leg up underneath himself, now I know not to do that and he does what comes naturally to him :)

Thanks :)


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