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Technique Dressage : Improving the canter

Technique Dressage : Improving the canter

Discover the key elements of mastering the canter in dressage. Learn about the proper position, exercises to improve the canter, and techniques for achieving balance, straightness, and engagement. Enhance your communication with your horse and optimize your performance in the canter.

Camille Judet Cheret is a french Grand Prix rider and trainer. Thanks to her 5 European Championships, 1 World Championship and 6 French Champion's title, she has developped a strong dressage expertise. 

Each month, she writes an article called Technique Dressage in a french magazine Grand Prix.


What is a good canter and how to improve it ? 


The previous Dressage Technique article focused on the trot, an essential gait in dressage. In early August, during the World Championships for young horses in Ermelo, the Netherlands, we were amazed by the extravagance of some five- and six-year-olds, earning scores of up to 10/10. However, let us not fall into the trap: a good trot is nice, but a good canter is even better! British Olympic champion Carl Hester consistently emphasizes that the walk and canter are the most crucial gaits for excelling in Grand Prix.


The math is simple, as the scoring includes five trot exercises compared to nine canter exercises. Moreover, trainers and riders often agree that it is easier to improve a mediocre trot than a deficient canter. Charlotte Chalvignac, 2019 Grand prix French Champion and selected for the French team at the 2019 European Championships in Rotterdam, shares her thoughts on the significance of a good canter.


The only asymmetrical gait


Unlike the trot, the canter is an "asymmetrical" gait, with the placement of the horse's limbs differing between cantering on the right and left leads. While the walk has four beats and the trot has two, the French Institute of the Horse and Riding defines the canter as a "three-beat jumping gait followed by a suspension phase." In the right lead canter, the sequence is as follows: left hind leg, left diagonal (left front leg and right hind leg), right front leg, followed by a propulsive or suspended phase. It is also referred to as a "rocking" gait, as "the horse's croup and withers rise and fall alternately during the stride." While the timing of the canter beats can be challenging to perceive for the human eye, it is more easily heard on a firm surface. A "four-beat" canter occurs when the placement of the diagonal pair of limbs is distinct, with the front and hind limbs touching the ground separately. Note that the flying change of lead corresponds to the transition from one canter to another. "At the end of the third beat of the stride, when the horse has both hind legs off the ground, it begins to switch them, and at the beginning of the first beat of the subsequent stride, it completes the switch with the front legs."


Evaluating abilities and potential


In the final of the 2019 World Championships for five-year-old young horses, the common factor among the three medalists Jovian, Secret, and Queenparks Wendy was receiving a score of 10/10 for the canter. From a young age, it is possible to assess the capabilities and estimate future prospects. "To test the aptitude of a young horse, I focus on performing transitions within the canter," explains Charlotte Chalvignac. Does the horse maintain balance on the hindquarters when the stride lengthens? Is the rhythm of the three beats compromised in the collected canter? Can the horse increase its amplitude without rushing? "I always caution against an overly large canter." It may be challenging to collect in the future. Thus, the evaluation is not solely about assessing amplitude and expression but also the ability to bear weight on the hindquarters while maintaining engagement, dynamic hind legs, and suppleness in the back. "In the canter, I primarily seek good elasticity and activity, a clearly three-beat rhythm, and balance."


Advancing through the levels by incorporating new exercises without mastering these fundamental elements will jeopardize the proper execution of movements. It is evident that a four-beat canter will struggle to perform flying changes in one beat, and a horse on the forehand will have difficulty transitioning from canter to walk. There are four types of canter: collected canter, working canter, medium canter, and extended canter. However, it is important to distinguish between collected canter and pirouette canter, which is much more stationary. It's important to note that collected canter does not imply a slowed canter! It is crucial to maintain power and hind leg activity when shortening the stride. The horse should remain ahead of its tracks, with the hind legs well separated. Conversely, extended canter should not be associated with loss of balance, excessive speed, or becoming too flat.


Does the canter make you nervous?


If your horse becomes hot and excitable in the canter, there is likely a good reason behind it. Systematic explosiveness can be a way for the horse to express pain, such as back discomfort. Perhaps your horse lacks exercise or free time in the paddock to release its excess energy. Cold and rainy weather, as well as unexpected external factors, can also make your horse playful. If their excitement intimidates you, don't hesitate to lunge them in a canter before getting in the saddle. A long warm-up in trot will help to warm them up and get them responsive to the aids. Circles, trot-walk transitions, and leg yields will assist in preparing for the canter departure. On a large circle, practice transitions between canter and trot. Regain relaxation in the trot before asking for the canter departure. If your apprehension is paralyzing, the canter sequences can be short, but make sure to ride your horse forward when you dare to canter. Feeling restrained by the reins may encourage them to escape further. On the contrary, forward motion is your main tool to regain control over an excited horse. It's better not to canter at all than to squeeze and restrict a tense horse.


Exercises to Improve the Canter


  • Circles and volte exercises are your best friends when it comes to improving the canter. Developing stride length on a straight line can unbalance a young or inexperienced horse. The twenty-meter circle naturally helps redistribute weight onto the hindquarters, although it's important to ensure that the horse doesn't lean on the inner leg. The volte, being smaller, allows for a more restricted trajectory that helps reestablish the horse's balance while maintaining activity. Turning on a shorter path prevents the horse from cantering too large.
  • Close transitions between collected and extended canter make the horse more attentive, independent, and responsive to aids. Multiplying transitions forces the horse to take responsibility. Anticipating the need to collect and extend, the horse learns to stay active in collection and maintain balance in forward movement.
  • Leg yielding is a good exercise to improve the rhythm and straightness of the canter in a more advanced horse. This slight lateral work reinforces your aids corridor, framing the canter between your inner leg and outer rein.
  • Counter-canter is an effective way to test the quality of the canter. On a horse proficient in this movement, alternate between a correctly executed medium canter on a twenty-meter circle and a second circle of the same size in counter-canter. Repeat the exercise several times. This sequence encourages the horse to maintain activity and an upward tendency in the counter-canter.
  • Counting the canter rhythm out loud helps to follow the tempo: one, two, three... one, two, three... one, two, three...
  • Remember that some horses relax better in the canter!


Watch out for a good position in canter


Let your horse breathe! Relax your lower leg, allowing your horse to learn to canter on their own. "Empower your horse." Charlotte recommends minimal leg and rein contact to avoid hindering or assisting your horse. If the outer leg moves back for the canter departure, do not harden it backward afterward. The legs should remain lowered and relaxed, ready to intervene effectively if necessary. The inner leg stays at the girth.


The third beat of the canter, when the inside foreleg touches the ground just before the propulsive phase in the air, is the best moment for the half-halt. It's not just about acting on the outer rein. Rather, have a more comprehensive sense of lifting your horse's forehand with the intention of keeping the forelegs in the air longer with your seat. This will increase the canter's suspension time. A timely half-halt should be enough to rebalance the horse, as they should learn to carry themselves. A yielding hand serves as both a reward, a way to test the horse's balance, and an encouragement to maintain forward movement.


A good canter is determined, in part, by satisfactory straightness, with the shoulders slightly ahead of the hindquarters. If the horse is crooked, meaning they canter with the hindquarters to the inside, pulling on the inside rein to straighten them will only make things worse. Contact on the outer rein and support from the inner leg will help you regain straightness.


Maintain an upright posture, pushing your bellybutton forward. "Your posture reinforces balance, and your seat supports the rhythm," emphasizes Charlotte. Be careful not to lean back, overloading the horse's back to slow down the canter. On the contrary, to engage the collection mechanism – flexing their loin and lifting their back – the horse almost needs to feel their rider lightening in the saddle.