Many gaited horses have trouble
doing a canter. [I am referring to a true canter here, not the four beat,
high action "show canter" that is popular among Fox Trotter and "big lick"
Walking Horse trainers.] Some old-timers will occasionally argue that the
canter is not natural to gaited breeds, and that it is wrong to make them
do the gait. Latin American breeds are not required to canter in
the show ring as part of their performance, and many trainers of those
horses believe that the canter will ruin the easy gaits of those horses.
North American gaited breeds are usually expected to canter, whether they
are shown at the gait or not. There is no reason the canter should
not be part of the picture for most well-trained fox trotting pleasure
WHAT IS THE CANTER?
The canter is a three beat
gait, done at a moderate speed — no faster than 10 mph— in which the rider
feels a gentle rise and fall in the saddle. The footfall sequence
of the canter is: one hind hoof sets down (first beat of the gait) ; the
other hind hoof and its diagonal front set down simultaneously (second
beat of the gait); the other front hoof sets down (third beat of the gait);
all four hooves clear the ground for a split second. The lead of
the canter is determined by which front hoof sets down last in the sequence.
If a horse "canters" with any variation of this footfall pattern or timing,
he is not doing a true canter.
To canter well, a horse
must have a strong back, strong hindquarters, well-developed stifles and
elasticity in his body. His legs must work together in a coordinated
way to produce the specific and complex footfall of the gait. His
back must round to allow him to push off with his outside hind leg, with
his hindquarters tucked under his body, flexed downward at the lumbo-sacral
junction. If his back is stiff and his coordination and timing are
off as he sets down his hooves, he may canter disunited, that is with a
hind and front on the same side setting down one after the other or simultaneously.
[This is sometimes called a 'rotary gallop.'] He may also do a miserable
gait in which both hind hooves set down at the same time. Or, he
may do a four beat canter, in which the two diagonal hooves that should
set down simultaneously hit at distinctly different intervals, usually
the front hitting before the hind. The horse may also mix trotting
or walking motion in either his front or hind legs with a cantering motion
from the other pair.
WHY DO GAITED HORSES HAVE TROUBLE
WITH THE CANTER?
Gaited horses have two
strikes against them when they try to canter. First, unlike trotting horses
which have only a couple of options in their leg coordination (they walk
or trot), gaited horses have a number of possibilities in the timing of
the way they move their legs. They may walk, trot, pace, stepping-pace,
fox trot, running walk, or rack. Many of these gaits are lateral,
with legs on one side moving forward together. This lateral timing
is similar to but not exactly the same as that of the canter, since in
that gait legs on one side also move forward together for part of each
stride. This can be confusing to a horse, who may move his legs forward
together one way in a stepping pace part of the time, and then must learn
to move them just slightly differently for the canter. The ability
to pace or do lateral gaits, which is part of what gives the horse his
easy gaits, presents a coordination problem when he tries to do a canter.
Second, in addition to this "wiring" problem, many gaited horses have very
stiff backs, either from early training or natural inclination connected
with the pacing gait. A horse with a stiff back cannot reach well
under himself with his hindquarters, and has trouble lowering and pushing
off with his haunches. He also will have rather poor balance, making the
canter a true challenge. Gaited horses with these problems may not
be able to canter free in a pasture, let alone with a rider.
WORKING THE HORSE'S BODY TO OVERCOME
Most gaited horses can
be trained to canter if they are taught to be supple, responsive to a rider's
cues, and given a chance to develop their overall fitness before they are
taught the gait. Fox Trotters should be trained to flat walk and
fox trot, and must have overcome all tendency to pace, at any speed, before
they are ready to work on a canter. In addition, before a Fox Trotter
can learn to canter well, he should be quiet and manageable in his other
gaits, and should be trained to work in a simple snaffle bit, with no leverage.
Even horses that are normally ridden in curb bits should be manageable
in a snaffle inside a ring or arena. The horse should accept the
bit, going willingly with light contact with his head in whatever position
you place it, and understand how to collect and extend his body in both
the flat walk and fox trot. He must not have a rigid neck or poll
from the use of a bitting rig, and he must respond to the neck stretching
exercise in the ordinary walk and flat walk.
Before you begin: You will
need the following equipment to work on the canter: a snaffle, non leverage
bit, (you can use the top rein of the Pelham, if you have one); a longe
line and longeing whip; a round pen (optional, only needed if you try free
longeing); four to eight six- inch diameter poles; two to four small
cavallettis or the equivalent ( poles set between cement blocks will work)
and a small hill.
Try riding your horse in
a canter by pushing him on for speed in the bit he normally wears, up a
slight hill, in the flat walk or fox trot until he breaks into a hard trot,
then a canter, if he will do the gait at all.. Analyze the type of
gait he does. Does he go disunited— one lead in front, the other
in back? Does he gallop on, rushing with too much speed? Does he
use a four beat canter? Does he use only one lead? Does he
refuse to canter at all, falling into a pace or a very fast hard trot?
Some of these problems are fairly easy to deal with, while others, such
as a horse that refuses to canter or lope at all, can be very difficult.
All of them can be helped by exercises that condition the legs and body
of the horse.
Building coordination and strength:
Work on the longe:
Many Fox Trotters
have trouble cantering in a controlled way without the weight of a rider.
They become even more uncoordinated if their only experience with the gait
comes while being ridden. For horses of this type, work free longeing
in a round pen can teach the rudiments of the canter, and work on a longe
line in a 30 to 35 foot circle will help them learn to control their legs
in the gait. To free longe a horse in a round pen, turn him into
the pen, position yourself toward his hindquarters, and move him on, using
your voice or waving a hat or lead rope until he moves out with some speed
around you. Pay attention to the type of gait he chooses at canter
speed. He may switch leads, front and back, pace or mix the pace
with the canter. He may also decide to take off in a fast gallop.
Allow this, then gradually crowd him into slowing down by positioning your
body toward his shoulders and using the words "easy" or "slow down" to
quiet him. Reverse him when he has slowed to a walk by positioning
yourself in front of him, waving him off to make the change in direction.
After the initial sessions
of free longeing (four or five lessons) fit the horse with a longe line,
attached to a regular halter or longeing cavesson, with no side reins or
other restrictions on his head. In a round pen, or a corner of an
arena, work the horse on the longe until he understands and obeys this
piece of equipment. [If you have never longed a horse before, have someone
who knows the trick of it to help you, or read Charles O. Williamson's
book, Breaking and Training the Stock Horse for a description of how it
is done.] Then push him into a canter, from a hard trot, circling counter-clockwise,
cracking the whip behind him to move him forward with some speed.
If you have trouble getting your horse to hard trot, set out four poles
on the track and longe him over them until he trots, then ask him to canter
over them. If he is still reluctant to take the canter, place one
cavalletti at the height of about a foot, on the track, and longe him over
that, allowing him to jump it. That will help him push off with his
hind legs and may encourage the canter. Your horse may start to gallop
in a fast uncoordinated way. Allow him to circle a few times at that
speed, then use light pulls and slacks on the longe line to slow him down
a little, being ready to push him on with the whip if he starts to fall
out of the canter into a pace. Keep up his forward momentum and impulsion
in the canter, so that he does a somewhat strung out, loping gait.
Return to the walk, then reverse him and canter him the other direction.
Over the next several days,
practice longeing the horse at the canter, using the word "canter" when
you want him to take the gait, being sure to work in both directions.
You will soon notice which direction is more difficult for him. Work
him just a bit more to that side, helping him bend and take the lead he
does not favor. Make frequent transitions into the canter from the
hard trot, and into the trot from the canter. When those are going
smoothly and it seems that the horse understands the verbal command to
canter, try transitions from the flat walk to the canter, and the canter
back to the flat walk. This will help him learn to slow the gait,
and build strength in his back and hindquarters. Walk/canter transitions
are actually more important in developing a good, cadenced, slow speed
canter than work in at the canter itself. A horse learns to canter,
not by cantering, but by making frequent transitions into and out of the
gait. Expect to work your horse on the longe at the canter for several
weeks, or months. It takes time to build strength and coordination.
Of course, you can ride at other gaits during this time.
horse is cantering well and consistently on the longe you can add
some ridden work in the gait. Do not discontinue the longe line work,
as it will continue to build strength and flexibility. Use the longe
for work over poles and cavallettis to help your horse condition his legs
and back in the hard trot, and to develop his stifles. This will
later help him work in a true, three beat canter in place of a four beat
To canter your horse under
saddle, at first you must let him know that it is OK for him to do the
gait. He may not believe that he should ever try it with you on him,
if he has been working only in the flat walk and fox trot with a rider.
To move him into a canter, on a slight up hill grade, lean slightly forward
in the saddle, push him into a fast fox trot or hard trot, repeat the word
"canter" and give him a sharp whack with a thick crop on his haunches,
while squeezing with both legs. This should startle him into a faster
gait, and with the addition of the verbal cue to canter, should get him
moving in a fast lope. Do not interfere with his gait in any way.
Do not try to slow him down, lean back, or pull on the reins. Let
him move out with energy for a while, then gradually slow him by sitting
a bit more upright, using light pulls and slacks on the reins to slow him
to a slower canter, then a fox trot. Repeat several times in each
riding session. Do not worry about leads, action, speed or other
niceties of the gait. You are working on teaching the horse to do
a gait in the canter family, not perfecting that gait. Be sure to
work in this fast canter up slight hills. This will help him push
with his hindquarters and round his back. Avoid cantering down even
the slightest dip, as this will throw your horse's weight onto his shoulders
and may interfere with his coordination. Horses that have trouble
with a disunited canter or a four beat canter will be much worse if cantered
on a downhill slant.
Once your horse understand
that he can canter with you on a slight hill you can start working on the
flat. In the arena, practice starting the canter as you ride your
horse over one pole, encouraging him to lift his front legs and push off
with the hind. Canter a few steps, then return to a flat walk.
Practice frequent transitions, flat walk to canter, canter to flat walk,
just as you did on the longe line. This will teach the horse to canter
more slowly, without inhibiting his forward movement. However,
he will still be cantering fairly fast at this stage in training.
Don't try to slow the canter below a fast lope for some time. He
must be confident and willing to move forward correctly in a three beat
gait before he can learn to slow down in it.
Lateral flexibility and leads:
Although it may take some
time, once your horse has learned to take off into a canter, at whatever
lead he prefers, whenever you ask for the gait, it is time to work on his
lateral flexibility and on leads. All horses are naturally one-sided,
and their preferred side determines their preferred lead. To train
a horse to canter on the non-favored lead, he must first be made flexible
in both directions, then taught to use a body position favorable to that
Haunches-in — the key to
leads: When a horse takes off in the canter on his favorite lead, he is
bent slightly toward that lead, his body making a very shallow "C" curve
in the direction of the leading legs. This happens because his body
is naturally inclined to bend that direction, due to tighter muscles on
one side of the back and more elastic ones on the other. This tightening
of the back is increased by carrying the weight of a rider, which probably
explains why horses free in a pasture will usually take both leads with
no clear preference, but when ridden almost always prefer one over the
other. To overcome this problem, you must teach your horse to bend
his back equally in both directions, on cue.
There are several exercises
that will help a horse bend his back laterally. They are generally
called the lateral flexions and include, the haunches-in, and the
shoulder-in, leg yields, half passes, and voltes. All are valuable
for building flexibility in a horse, but to determine leads at the canter
the haunches-in is probably the only one you will absolutely need to teach
In a haunches-in, the horse's
hindquarters move over at least one hoof-width away from the rail (or the
rider's outside leg) while the horse moves forward, head, neck and shoulders
on the original track, parallel to the rail. To do this
exercise, the horse must yield his hindquarters away from outside leg pressure,
while responding to inside rein pressure to prevent turning his head and
neck "over the rail" to the same side as the pressing leg. This forms
a shallow "C" curve, away from the rail, and puts the inside hind hoof
and the inside front hoof in such a position that the horse must take the
inside lead when pushed into a canter. It stretches the muscles along
the back and loin of the horse, while shifting his weight just a little
toward the outside hind leg.
It is a great help in teaching
the haunches-in if you can first teach the horse to yield his hindquarters
to the side with leg pressure in the turn on the forehand. Teach
this at first from the ground. Standing at the horse's side, push
with your closed hand on his side, just where your calf would hang in the
stirrup, at the same time tipping his nose toward you. His hind legs
should move over about one step. Stop, praise him, then walk forward
a step, and repeat on the other side. After a couple of lessons of
this on the ground, try the exercise mounted, using your calf to push the
haunches over one step. Gradually discontinue tipping the horse's
nose to the side as you cue the turn. Practice in both directions
until at any time, when stopped, your horse will instantly yield over his
hindquarters with a push from one of your legs.
Walk your horse along the
rail in an arena, in a straight line. Do not try to do a haunches-in
on a curve— this is very difficult for a horse and takes many months of
preparation with flexibility exercises before it can be done well.
Press straight into his side with your outside leg to push his hindquarters
away from the
rail one step, while keeping lighter pressure on his side with your inside
leg to maintain his forward motion, pushing strongly with your inside calf
only when necessary to move him on. Shorten your inside rein just
a bit, to prevent the horse from turning his head into the rail, supporting
this by taking lighter contact with your outside rein to prevent the horse
from bending his head too far toward the inside of the arena. Keeping
his head and neck parallel to the rail, move your horse forward in the
ordinary walk. Straighten him around the curves of the arena, then
continue on in the haunches-in. Repeat, going the other way
of the arena, reversing your cues. Practice this often at the ordinary
walk, in both directions, until the horse gives easily to your leg pressure
and rein signals. Then do the exercise in the flat walk.
Cuing the canter: When your horse
can easily perform a haunches-in at the flat walk, put him in that position,
then ask him to canter. To do this, sit upright in the saddle, shift
your weight just slightly to your outside seatbone, push straight into
his side at the girth with your outside leg, lift slightly with the inside
rein (the one on the "leading" side) at the same time you gently rock your
seat in the saddle, back to front, squeezing and lifting with both your
inner thighs. Use the verbal cue to "canter," and be willing to reinforce
your leg cues with a tap from the crop. Try to time your thigh squeezes
with the moment the outside hind hoof sets down, encouraging the horse
to push off with that leg. The horse should strike off into the canter,
on the lead you have indicated.
Possible problems: Your horse
may start out on the lead you want, then falter and switch leads.
Return to the flat walk, start over, and be sure to keep pushing with your
outside leg strongly on his side, keeping his hindquarters "traversed"
over one step and his head and neck slightly bent to the inside of the
curve. He cannot switch leads as long as you maintain the "C" curve
toward the side of the lead you have chosen.
Your horse may also switch
leads in back, while maintaining the correct one in front. Again,
return to the flat walk, start over, and push strongly with your outside
leg to prevent him from moving his haunches toward the rail. At the
same time, squeeze with your inside leg to keep up his momentum,
preventing him from changing the rhythm of his footfalls.
You may have trouble maintaining
the haunches-in position as the horse starts off into the canter.
Take advantage of the corners of the arena to help maintain the C curve
for a while, until you have better control using the aids for the haunches-in.
Slowing down: Once your horse
will take the canter, on the lead you want, you can begin to work on slowing
the gait. The best way to do this is to work on walk/canter transitions.
One of the worst is to canter in small circles. Work in circles is
hard for a horse, especially a gaited one with balance problems.
Cantering in a small circle will either cause the horse to rush the canter
or to fall into the bad habit of four beating the gait, front hoof hitting
before diagonal hind in the second beat. To slow the canter, sit
straight, ask for a canter-depart, canter four steps, then take a deeper
seat (weight a little to the rear) and slow to a flat walk. Walk
four steps, then canter again. Repeat this, in both directions, until
the horse canters slowly, anticipating the slow to the walk, then increase
the number of canter steps. You should slow to the flat walk by using
light vibrations on the reins and shifting your weight slightly to the
rear of the saddle, not by pulling hard on the reins. In time your
horse will do a slow lope when asked to canter.
A lope is fine for trail riding, but at some point you will want to develop
a true, collected canter. To do this, ride your horse at the lope,
then as you feel the forefeet leave the ground and the front of the horse
starts to rise, very lightly restrain with your reins, as you squeeze and
lift with your thighs. The horse will take a slightly higher "roll"
in front, shortening his stride in the canter, and pushing his hindquarters
under his body. Practice restraining very lightly with your reins
and not quite simultaneously lifting with your thighs at each stride, until
the horse canters at the speed you want. Be careful not to restrain
too much with the reins or to "pump" upwards with them, since this will
usually cause a four beat gait and will cause a loss of push or impulsion
from the hindquarters.
If you follow a program
of mentally and physically conditioning your horse for the gait, he should
canter easily. However, if your horse is pacey, racky, stiff, high
headed, and has weak conformation in the hindquarters, hocks and stifles,
he will have a great deal to overcome before he can canter well.
If, in addition, he is not able to canter while free in a pasture, he may
not be able to do an acceptable canter with a rider. Enjoy him at
his other gaits, and remember that the old-timers were sometimes right,
the canter is not natural to all gaited horses.