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The correct work can develop balance and suppleness in your canter

Creating a better canter

The correct work can develop balance and suppleness in your canter

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s often said that your horse’s canter can make or break you as a competitive rider – especially when it comes to jumping and dressage disciplines. Ideally, you want a horse who has an active, fluid and rhythmic canter. Showjumpers and eventers in particular want a horse who has bounce and ground-cover in the canter, so that he can jump out of momentum. Dressage riders want a canter with energy and expression, with effortless balance and the horse cantering uphill from his hind end. While this all sounds well and good, the reality is that few horses are born with a naturally strong canter. Certain breeds sport a better canter than others, while some tend to be quite flat in the gait.

Why is the canter so important?

There may be several issues in your schooling that you may not have traced back to the canter. Cantering exercises can help your horse develop suppleness, balance, rhythm, scope and uphill movement that is off the forehand.

As mentioned, a good canter for jumpers is of paramount importance. The quality of your canter can be the reason you have stops, knocks or time faults. When your horse approaches a fence with an energetic, balanced and rhythmic canter, it makes it easier for both horse and rider to see a perfect stride and for the horse to jump with scope and momentum. On the other hand, if your horse approaches a fence in a flat canter, where he feels like he is merely dragging his feet along, he won’t have the necessary energy to clear the fence and he might even say no altogether. Many riders are afraid of forward, but there is a difference between cantering with pace and running.

When it comes to dressage, showing and equitation disciplines, judges will look for a canter that is balanced, rhythmic and expressive. Does your horse manage to cover even ground in the canter, and does he keep his hindquarters under him and his shoulders straight around a circle? Dressage horses also need to demonstrate fluid upward and downward transitions in the canter, as well as show adjustability within the gait.

Perfect your transitions

You want your horse to push from behind and work over his back

Transitions have a lot to do with getting the right timing and preparing for the movement. Envision where you want the transition to happen and prepare in advance; don’t get to the marker and ask only then, because your horse will likely only react two strides later. If you are schooling a young horse, use the corners or bends of a circle, as these will be easier than trying to ask on a straight line where you run the risk of becoming unbalanced.

The aids for the canter should be given one at a time, with your outside leg behind the girth (to encourage the hind legs underneath the body), and the inside leg closing on the girth. Keep a contact on the mouth without pulling, and keep your elbows and hands soft, so that you don’t hinder the upward movement of the transition. If you feel your horse anticipating the transition, use a half-halt to rebalance and refocus him, so that he strikes off his hind end and upwards into the canter.

When transitioning back to trot or walk, your upper body control is very important. Keep your stomach muscles tight and engaged, use a half-halt and gently close your legs on the girth, so that the horse doesn’t collapse into the downward transition. You still want him to move forward in the downward gait and not lose all momentum and balance when doing so. A good tip is to look up when you transition.

Condense the canter

Condensing the canter essentially means shortening the horse’s stride, but maintaining the same amount of energy that he would have in a normal, active canter. By shortening the stride, but asking the horse to maintain forward and upward movement, you encourage more expressive front and hind action. This results in what looks like a bouncing or rocking-horse canter. The aim of condensing the canter is not to go slower, but rather to collect the canter and ask the horse to engage his hind legs and lift his front legs more actively. This comes as a very useful tool, especially in jumping, where you might need the horse to back off a fence slightly, but you don’t necessarily want to lose the energy in the canter.

It’s very difficult to train a horse to collect and condense, especially if the horse lacks natural balance. This type of training requires a lot of accuracy and patience on the rider’s part.

Stay on a large circle when training this exercise, and start by picking up an engaged working canter. Close your fingers on the reins, without pulling back, and use an outside half-halt to ask your horse to slow down. At the same time, close your legs lightly on the girth to tell your horse that you still want a forward movement. Once he’s got the idea of shortening the stride, you can focus on maintaining an uphill frame. Encourage him to keep his head up by lifting your hands slightly and keeping your upper body steady and tall. Use some light leg if you feel him falling onto the forehand, but be careful not to send him back into a forward canter. The aim is to get him to sit back on his hind legs and canter uphill. See if you can feel a difference in the bounce of the canter.

As soon as he has offered a few strides of condensed canter, reward him by letting him go forward again. It’s not easy for the horse to maintain at first, and you can slowly build it up over time.

More tips and exercises appear in the March issue (120) of HQ > Shop now