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Cantering Correctly: A Step-by-Step Guide

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Cantering Correctly

By Kristin Hermann

Horseplay Magazine, July 1991


Nice working trot; horse coming through from behind and rounding onto the bit.


Rider in jumping position; horse rounding nicely at canter, showing a good topline.
Rider in full seat; horse cantering nicely balanced at the beginning of a 15-meter circle.

In order to best influence the horse at canter under saddle, the horse should be able to canter in balance on the longe in both directions. Balance means that the horse carries itself and does not rush forward onto the forehand. Be sure that you allow a large enough circle on the longe for the horse to move on - 15 to 20 meters. Generally, you can tell if the horse is balanced by recognizing whether it moves with ease while cantering. If the horse cannot canter with balance on the longe, it will be more difficult under saddle to carry the weight of the rider.


Before acquiring a decent canter under saddle, the rider needs first to get the horse going forward at a working trot (a rising trot) on a large, 20-meter circle. The rider wants to allow the horse to develop a rhythmic working trot and be unconstrained in its stride. Preferably, the horse is rounding its topline into the rider's rein contact. You want the horse rounding its topline so that it develops the muscular ability not to be concave under the rider's weight. This topline development is the first phase of dressage or gymnastic suppleness for the horse.


When the horse has warmed up at a trot in both directions, canter work begins.


Striking Off at a Canter

 You ask the horse to canter from the forward working trot. (Photo 1) Some horses will strike off into a canter depart when you ask them during that brief moment when you sit the stride during the posting trot. Others will require a stronger aid and will not readily canter. You do not want to lean forward to attain a canter depart, but to sit back. The horse's first canter stride comes from the hindquarters. Through the process of training, the horse should learn immediately to strike off within one stride when the rider cues the horse.


The most advantageous place to ask for the canter depart is either before you ride out of a corner in the arena, or just before entering the center of the corner's arc. If you are riding the horse on a 20-meter circle, you can cue the horse to canter any place on the arc.


Longitudinal Motion

It is vital when developing the green horse's canter to keep your weight off its back while cantering. Thus, in a two-point or jumping position, the horse's back has the opportunity to round, provided the rider is not shortening the horse's neck with a tight rein contact (photo 2).


In order for the horse to use itself properly during the canter, its topline needs to move longitudinally from tail to poll. The rider has to allow for this movement either by riding without contact to the horse's mouth, or by learning how to give through the rein's contact back and forth with the horse's longitudinal motion. When a rider is learning to feel for the horse's longitudinal movement at the canter, he must be sure to allow the horse enough neck room through the rein to move correctly. Often, reins are held too short and tight at the canter, and the horse cannot naturally stretch back and forth with every stride.


Watch a Videotape of Yourself

 Watching a video of yourself riding could be a tremendous help in seeing how your individual contact is maintained and whether or not you constrain the horse.


In allowing the elbow to flex forward and backward in rhythm with the horse's strides, the rider maintains the contact at the canter. Watching a jockey on a race horse will give you an exaggerated vision of this motion, or an open jumper rider who follows the horse's forward neck stretch in order to bascule over the fence. The straight line from the elbow to the bit is maintained whether racing, jumping, or cantering 20-meter circles.


For the basic canter, the elbows forward and backward absorption of the motion is slight, perhaps one to six inches; the longer the stride, the more movement. This following motion may be slight, but its importance cannot be underestimated. If the rider does not allow for the horse's longitudinal movement through the rein contact, its gait will be constrained and stiffen. Often a horse ridden consistently constrained at the canter will begin a four-beat instead of a three-beat canter.


When to Sit the Canter

 When the rider is capable of keeping the horse's topline round at a canter, the rider begins to sit the canter in a full seat. (Photo 3.) Usually, it takes time in a half seat, allowing the muscles to develop the supple strength needed to carry the rider, before he can sit the gait. This may take from two to six weeks to three months.


Similarly, the rider should not be in a sitting trot until the horse stays consistently on the bit. If he sits the trot and/or canter, and the horse's topline does not stay rounded into the bit, the horse is not ready to carry the rider's full weight. The horse could be gymnastically ready, but the rider may be interfering with the horse's gait either with a stiff back, seat, or rigid rein contact. Actually, any stiffness in the rider's position could interfere with the horse's gymnastic development.


Canter to Trot:

Downward Transition

When going from a canter to a trot, immediately resume the working trot. Once trotting, the horse should be kept rhythmically forward and rounded throughout the topline. When the horse has settled into the trot after the canter, then let it walk. If the horse is allowed to walk immediately after cantering, the rider will probably jeopardize its training for fluent and active (engaged) downward transitions.


Trot work after the canter also helps to balance and relax any back muscles in the horse that may become cramped or constrained during the canter.

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