Canter On!

For most riders, daily time in the saddle follows a similar pattern that involves riding the walk, schooling the trot, and surviving the canter. Or they may even abstain from canter unless their instructor is present to force them through a few arduous circles.

Frequently, riders will tell me that they want to make their horse perfectly balanced in the trot before embarking on the canter, lest they make a big mess of things. While this is indeed a sound idea, I remind them that ‘perfection’ often takes much more time than we anticipate, and generally what happens is that riders spend so long—sometimes years—drilling the trot that the horse’s movement and confidence in canter further deteriorates. It then becomes a much bigger job to fix. Biomechanically, avoiding the canter in early dressage training is a disservice to our horses.

Cantering promotes looseness in the horse’s spine by causing hip and lumbar flexion, the very necessary ingredients of engagement. The naturally assymetrical movement of canter (with one side of the body leading the other) causes the horse to stabilize his trunk with abdominal and oblique muscles, which leads to increased back strength. Also, the motion of canter involves flexion of the horse’s sacroiliac joint (in the pelvis) which not only creates a wave through the spine but also maintains good spacing between vertebrae rather than them clumping together or becoming rigid–which can happen with two much trotting.

Do yourself a favor and commit to tackling your horse’s canter, no matter how much work it needs. If you are unbalanced or fearful, find a rider who can help you a few days per week. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a trainer but just someone with a balanced seat, light hands, and ability to give your horse confidence. I tell my riders that an ideal arena schooling session should include close to equal percentages of time spent in walk, trot, and canter. Ask yourself about the ratio of gaits in your workouts. Can you make a goal to canter as much as you walk and trot?

Here are my tried and true rules for making progress, based on helping dozens of horses over the years that started with terribly unbalanced canters and ended with lovely, rhythmic, enjoyable canters.

  1. Most importantly, let it be messy. Do not try to tidy things up as this most often causes the horse to tense which further deteriorates the canter. Just let the horse canter around and figure out where his feet are, how to turn corners, how not to hold his breath, how to get comfortable. Don’t worry if his head is up, if he rushes a little, if your circles are not round, etc. Just keep cantering.
  2. Don’t worry about the “bad” lead. Make progress where you can, even if that means schooling just one side for a week or two. If your horse gets really nervous/anxious or resistant on one particular lead, leave that one alone and work on making progress with the other side. You will NOT be making him one-sided by doing this. Rather, you will build up his trust and stability in the canter.
  3. Forget about your position for now. If your horse is young or his canter is rough, you might not be able to sit in a perfect dressage position. Trying to do so will be futile—and will only make you rigid– until he is more balanced under you. Remember, things are going to be messy before they get pretty.
  4. Stroke his neck while cantering. This serves to relax BOTH of you.
  5. If your horse falls out of the canter, allow him to re-organize in the trot for 2-3 steps and then resume cantering. Chasing him too quickly back to canter only teaches him to rush and get anxious.
  6. With each canter bout, maintain it long enough for it to improve before coming back to trot or walk. In other words, don’t canter half a circle and quit. Wait to feel the horse change under you—his neck might relax, his tempo might slow down, his stride might smooth out—and only then come back to trot or walk. This is how you make progress day to day.

To make measurable progress, it will help to commit 2-3 days per week over the next two months where you focus on just improving the canter. Consistency is your fastest way to bettering the gait. Improving your own fitness will also assist you during your horse’s “messy” canter period.