The natural rhythm of canter

Canter is a three beat movement. The starting point of the canter (and this is important, remember this) is the outside hindleg. Then the inside hind and the outside front are put on the floor. Last down is the inside front. That’s what riders are told to look at, to see if they are in the correct canter lead. It’s easy, as you can see the shoulder going forward more. After all the hoofs have been on the ground, there is a moment with all the legs up in the air. This is also important to remember, because if the rhythm is compromised, this floating moment with all fours up will be short or even absent. If so, you won’t be able to do a proper flying change.


There is something you should know about the canter. Naturally each horse goes crooked in it. It is because of the way this movement goes. Because the outside hind is the starting point, a horse will always try to put this underneath his body. Try carrying your shopping bag when the handle is broke. You hold it in front of you, in the middle, not to the side. So because the horse is trying to push his weight and yours up, he will put his outside hind more to the middle, therefore pushing his hindquarters in. If a horse is young or not trained very well, he’ll lean on the forehand. In this case, with his hindquarters inwards, he’ll lean on his outside shoulder.

What is needed to get a horse straight in canter? You need to move the shoulders inwards, to position them in front of both hindlegs. Easier said than done. You can’t put your inside leg back. It has to stay near the girth, to indicate the lead of the canter. You will have to move the shoulders between your reins, like a shoulder in. If you haven’t taught a horse how to react properly, it won’t happen. Or you’ll end up pulling the inside rein, which blocks the canter, so he will run off or simply turn his head in while leaning even more on the outside shoulder.

If you start straightening a horse in canter, he’ll find it hard to carry the weight with both hindlegs. Therefore he will protest. Horses have several ways of doing that: speeding up or slowing down is mostly seen. Don’t get mad. Just accept that it’s difficult for him and try again. Start with a little bit, give him time to build up his strength. This might take a few months. But it won’t happen if you don’t ask, so ask for a little shoulder in in each canter, every day, always.


The canter feels like riding waves. You have to have a supple back to follow the movement. My old teacher always said it should feel like the skin of your bum is attached to the saddle. All what’s inside can move. Your hands need to move in that same wavelike motion, with the head. Not more, not less.

In the old days it was told to hold the outside rein more firm, so the horse could balance on that. If a horse is not straight, he will try to lean on the outside shoulder and it feels like more pressure on the outside rein. If you give him this support he will thankfully accept it. If you don’t, he’ll have to find his balance himself. It takes two to pull. I don’t say you can’t give an aid with your outside rein. Especially when you want to move the shoulders more inward, you will need to talk hold of the outside rein. But it should be just one aid. So let go when he answers. Even if it means you have to repeat it, because he falls back on his outside shoulder. But if you continue to hold on all the time, your aid loses its meaning. It’s there all the time, as a structure to lean on. And you will need an even more firm aid to make him respond. So in the canter the feel in both reins should be equally elastic. Unless you want to give a certain signal. But after that: let go again.

Blocking your reins too much will interfere with moving the legs forward. So if you block the inside, he can’t make the jump and will stop or fight the restriction by running away. Or he will put a foot to the floor too soon, compromising the rhythm until you have a four beat canter. If you block the outside, he will lean on the shoulder more and stiffen his back. A lot of riders block too much as a safety precaution or because then don’t have a true independent seat. Therefore I let my pupils do big circles in canter with a long rein often. It’s a good way to test if you can sit to it and if the horse carries on in the same speed in balance.


Blocking with the hands in canter also happens when a rider tries to force the head of the horse in the outline. But the true outline is not something you can force. It will happen naturally, if the hindlegs are engaged in the right way and you are able to maintain an elastic contact. Don’t focus on the position of the head and neck. Focus on the rhythm of the canter and your independent seat. You should be able to go forward and back fluently and to canter with a long rein without speeding up or losing balance. In future episodes I will give you lots of exercises to reach this goal.

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