Conventional wisdom says that for dressage you need to buy a horse with a good walk and a good canter because these gaits are difficult, if not impossible, to improve, whereas it is much easier toimprove the trot. Like many generalised rules, it is not altogether wrong, but it’s not completely true, either. On the one hand, it is accurate to say that horses with a calm, round, uphill canter and good suspension are much easier to train than horses with a rushy, scratchy, downhill canter. On the other hand, it is possible to improve the canter quite a bit, if you know how.
Here you need to distinguish between the work that prepares the horse for the canter and the work in the canter itself. The purpose of the preparatory work is to give the horse the balancing ability, strength, and coordination he needs for a good canter. This is done at the walk and canter.
François Robichon de la Guérinière (1733) wrote that horses should be trained in the lateral movements in the trot, as well as in piaffe and passage before starting the canter work. I take this as a sign that the horses of his time didn’t have an especially good natural canter and therefore needed to be prepared very carefully. Our modern warmbloods and most baroque horses have a better natural canter so that you can start much earlier with the canter work.
After the French Revolution, Iberian horses fell more and more out of fashion. They were replaced by English Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred crosses, which probably improved the canter. Ernst Friedrich Seidler (1837), Louis Seeger (1844), and Oskar Stensbeck (1931) held that horses should at least be able to do a shoulder-in at the trot before starting serious canter work.
It is important that the horse is well balanced in the trot before thinking of working on the canter. Balance problems tend to get bigger the higher the gait. Therefore, young horses should be allowed enough time in their training to develop the strength and balance to strike off calmly and without apprehension before they are asked to canter on a regular basis.
Preparing For Canter Work
Generally speaking, you can say even today: the worse the horse’s natural canter is, the more thoroughly you will have to prepare him and the longer it will take before the horse is able to stay calm, uphill, and round in the canter. Exercises that are especially suitable for preparing the canter are combinations of voltes, figure 8s, serpentines, and lateral movements in the walk and especially in the trot, as well as transitions between walk, trot, and halt, turns on the forehand in motion, turns on the haunches, and reinback. These develop the suppleness, strength, coordination, and balance that the horse needs for a well balanced canter depart. Horses with a good natural canter, on the other hand, can start cantering under the rider relatively soon.
Preparing For The Strike-Off
The quality of the strike-off into the canter is especially important, as it is much easier to simply maintain a good canter than to transform a bad canter into a good one. Should the canter quality be poor after the transition, it is therefore better to return to the walk or trot and repeat the preparation and the canter depart again, rather than torturing yourself and your horse needlessly with a bad canter.
How do I get a good canter depart? As a general rule, you can say that the quality of the canter depends on the quality of the transition into it. The quality of the transition in turn depends on the quality of the previous gait.
The most difficult thing you can do is to ask for a canter depart on a straight line and on a single track because horse and rider receive no help from the line of travel or from a movement. It is much easier when you bring the horse into a balance in which the transition is relatively easy for him. In order to be able to do that you have to know the mechanics of the canter depart.
The outside hind leg lifts the horse into the canter. The more it steps under the body and flexes its joints before the transition, the more uphill the horse will canter. The more the outside hind leg stays behind the horse’s body, the flatter, quicker, and more downhill the horse will canter. so therider only has to think of exercises that transfer the weight onto the outside hind leg and flex its joints.
During the transition you should get the feeling that the horse lifts you into the canter first and then carries you forward. You can picture yourself sitting in a little boat on the ocean and a large wave coming from behind that first lifts the boat and then sweeps it along. This way, the aspect of acceleration is more in the background whereas the upward movement is in the center of attention.
The simplest example for this is the enlarging of the circle for two to three strides, followed by two half halts into the outside hind leg, just before the canter depart. Enlarging the circle transfers the weight onto the outside hind leg. The half halts flex its joints.
Shoulder-in right is a good preparation for the left lead canter, as it engages the right hind leg under the body. The right hind leg is the one that lifts the horse into the left lead canter. You can increase the effectiveness by riding the sequence shoulder-in right - turn on the haunches right - volte left. Ask for the canter at the beginning of the volte. The shoulder-in engages the right hind leg under the center of gravity. The turn on the haunches shifts the weight into it and makes it into the outside hind leg. The outside hind leg lifts the horse into the canter. The volte turns the shoulder, which prevents the horse from getting crooked and from running away in the canter depart.
Counter shoulder-in - renvers - shoulder-in - canter: the counter shoulder-in engages the hind leg that is closer to the outside track. The renvers shifts the weight onto it. Changing the bend and departing into the canter brings a certain relief since this hind leg goes from being the more carrying one to being the more pushing one. The renvers position also counters the horse’s tendency to get crooked in the transition. You can ride this exercise on a straight line as well as on a circle. It is especially well suited for horses who often canter on the wrong lead. It is furthermore a preparation for the flying changes.
Half passes and leg yields on the diagonal also lead to good canter departs, especially if you add a volte in the other direction after the half pass and ask for the canter on this volte.
In the hollow direction it is very helpful with some horses to ride 10m x 20m rectangles in the trot shoulder-in and to ask for the canter in one of the corners.
Good Canter- Poor Canter
A good uphill canter feels like UP – 2 - 3.
A poor downhill canter feels like 1 – 2 – DOWN.
The canter motion contains an up and down component as well as a forward - backward component.
In the uphill canter the dominant movement which the rider feels in her pelvis is the upward movement.
In the downhill canter the dominant movement which the rider feels in her pelvis is the forward movement.
In the uphill canter the croup stays lowered and the withers rises above the croup.
In the downhill canter the withers stay down, whereas the croup is lifted above the withers.
In a good canter the haunches flex enough so that the rider’s torso stays quiet and straight and is merely lifted up by the horse’s back. If the canter motion sends the rider’s shoulders rocking forward and backward, the haunches are stiff and unflexed, so that the rider is tossed forward with every stride.
A good canter takes a lot of strength in the beginning. You have to expect, therefore, that the horse will last only for a few strides before breaking gait or before the quality of the canter deteriorates. In that case it is better to be content with a few good strides than to try to force the horse to canter for a longer distance in poor quality because he would practice the wrong mechanics and train the wrong musculature and body awareness.
You also have to stop thinking of the canter as a fast gait. Otherwise it could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A collected canter is slow enough that you can walk next to the horse without breaking a sweat.
We have seen that the secret to a good canter is in large part the effective preparation. In the next issue of our newsletter I will give some tips of how to shape and transform the canter strides directly with your seat and aids after a successful transition.