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The Horse & The Canter

The Canter: Training site section Logo, horses grazing in tall grass.

By Bonnie J. Hilton ( Horse Training article copyrighted by Saddle & Bridle Magazine.)

Three decades ago Tom Roberts wrote in Horse Control The Young Horse, Horses kept in small stables or yards and not allowed the run of a paddock where they can have fun and games when they feel like it, are most likely to show what they are made of when first asked to canter. (Throughout this article I will be quoting Roberts from this same book.) Besides the space for overall structural development, few equines are given the time.

How long are those formative years?. As a human being will age prematurely if worked too hard as a child, so will the useful life of a horse be curtailed if worked too hard when he is young. Lipizzaners remain at grass for the first three years of their life, before being brought to the Spanish Riding Schoo! l.

Roberts states for canter, Don t b e in a hurry to canter your horse, either now when he is on the lunge or later when you are riding him. In both instances, the more schooling he has had before he takes the canter, the easier he will be to  control. And that means, among other things, the less you will pull him about  and hurt his mouth unnecessarily.

Your canter problems may have nothing to do with owning a youngster. What are they? I have worked with numerous equines that didn t have two distinct leads, which means that I could get only one lead on the longe or under saddle. Going the so called bad way, the horse would race into counter canter, or if you prefer, the wrong lead. Unfortunately the myth continues of the horses innate preference for one canter lead over the other (and one direction of travel in general) just like our human handedness, as stated in the 2006 publication of The USDF Guide to Dressage I suppose it is much easier to say that something is innate rather than doing the research and then assuming responsibility to say that the problem is a product of our development in domestication and our own unilateral application.

I am surprised that the old theories are still being quoted and because they are, there will be many people who feel that their horse was just born unilateral. Please remember that our job in training is to bring the horse to straightness and equal flexibility (bending aids) right and left. A life long commitment, for those with the passion.

Then there are the horses with canters that are disunited, unbalanced or simply too fast to really be under control and safe. I have been on horses that literally leaped into canter or did the big sidewinder kick at any outside leg being applied behind the girth to hold the quarters. In my opinion, use of spur and whip trains many equines that the canter is something that will produce pain and they develop a fear of it and erratic behavior will result.

I have also attempted to ride horses that I could not get to canter at all with any conventional aid usage and have watched as they were run into something that couldn t be called a canter. I suppose that is where we should start. What is the canter? When a horse performs the canter they should coordinate all four legs to take three ground strides (three beats) into a period of suspension, where all four legs are off the ground, which to some is called the silent stride or the fourth beat.

The canter starts with a hind leg taking the first step. Then the diagonal pair, which is made up of the opposite hind leg and the diagonal fore, is the second step. The third step is taken by the remaining foreleg, which is often called the leading leg and too often looked at by students who are not developing feel. Then all the legs are in the air together for the fourth step of suspended stride and to continue to canter, the horse should land with single hind leg (1), diagonal pair (2), leading leg (3) and suspension (4) and on and on you go, if you stay on the same lead.

What s a lead? Look back at what I just tried to explain. What is the first step? Let s say it is the left hind. What is the second step? The diagonal pair of right hind and left foreleg taking a step simultaneously. What is the third step? The remaining leg, the right foreleg, which is called the leading leg and as long as the horse is working the other two steps correctly as explained, the horse is on the right lead, which is usually the canter lead you would want if you are going to ride clockwise to the right into a bent line.

After the period of suspension, the canter steps start again with the left hind. What would the steps be for the left lead canter? Right hind (1), diagonal pair of left hind/right fore (2), and left fore (3) followed by suspension (4) and the steps start again with the right hind. The most obvious problem with a canter that is not true is the disunited canter. In a disunited canter, also known as the cross canter, the horse is on one lead in the front and the other behind. How do they do that and why? The diagonal pair becomes a lateral pair when the horse, most often, switches behind due to lack of fitness, balance and confidence in what is being asked of it. Poor footing will cause a disunited canter if the horse slips or feels insecure and unbalanced. You can t ask an unfit horse of any age to hold a canter on the correct lead on too small a circle under saddle or on the longe. It simply is asking for too much too soon and they can t collect enough from the hindquarters to maintain the impulsion that is needed to keep the footfalls true.   Sometimes a lameness problem can cause the disunited canter.

For example of what the disunited canter looks like, think of the correct sequence for a right lead canter and somewhere along the way the horse changes the sequence behind and strikes with the right hind as the first step, now what? The left hind and the left fore get paired together as a lateral step two. The third step is still the correct right fore. If the horse is on the right lead and switches in the front, what will it look like? Left hind (1), right hind and right fore (2) and left fore (3). Under saddle it feels terrible and once experienced, most riders will recognize the problem immediately.

When a young equine in training starts switching its lead in the back to disunited it is imperative that you access what is going on with your training. First and foremost make sure that you are not pushing for too much too soon and that the horse is simply too tired for the performance. Have you changed footing, is the equine in new shoes, new saddle or other equipment? Are you trying to make too sharp a turn or too small a circle? When it happens and you have ruled out all of the above, quietly come back into trot and ask again for the canter but don t force the issue. If the horse goes readily back into canter, work a few good steps and then the transition back to trot.

Older equines that are coming back into fitness training will switch behind when they attempt to disengage. It can become an issue if the older equine is allowed to constantly get away with it. I have memories of my early rides on equines that would constantly break on me or cross canter and cause me to bring them down to trot. The correction is to ride the equine forward with some conviction of your seat. It doesn t mean you need to go faster, you need to communicate to the equine that the back end needs to be engaged, while the front end needs to become lighter. I prefer to go to transition work and keep at it until the equine strikes off with impulsion. This is one instance where a little help from a correctly applied whip can make a big difference but it shouldn t be a crutch.

The equine needs to be allowed time to develop the fitness and you need to be sure you apply your aids correctly and clearly as well.

Now some readers are wondering what is the difference from canter.  Few ring riders gallop and what is often called a hand gallop is nothing more than an extended canter and should be called what it is.  In a true ground covering gallop, the diagonal pair splits so that the horse can use its body in full extension to cover as much ground as possible. You need room to gallop. The gallop is lead specific like the canter and has a period of suspension, so that you could say it has four ground strides and one air borne. Right lead, left hind (1), right hind (2) left fore (3) and right fore (4) period of suspension and then into sequence again. Left lead, right hind (1), left hind (2) right fore (3) and left fore (4) period of suspension and then repeat. Under saddle the gallop should be controlled, cadenced and balanced whether it is the slower true hand gallop or the much faster racing gallop. As with the canter, horses have to be trained, fit and balanced.

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