The canter is a gait with three beats, where the horse’s legs hit the ground in the following order:

 One hind leg, first beat
 One diagonal biped, second beat
 The remaining hind leg, third beat.

When the horse canters to the right, the sequel is left hind, right hind and left front at the same time, and right front.

A high degree of collection in the canter is the sign of good training.

The horse moves with beauty, taller and relaxed. The front end becomes majestic, the hind end flexes. The cues of the rider become invisible. The rider follows and supports the horse.

The horse is free. Therefore, he can execute all the exercises: circles, serpentines, lead changes, circles on two tracks, pirouettes and canter on the spot…

To take a young horse to a collected canter requires method, patience and skill. It’s a fascinating journey.

The aids for the Canter Depart

To know how to ask for a Canter Depart… Lots of controversy about this subject! Should one use diagonal or  lateral aids? The outside or the inside rein? … Useless bickering!

When you ask for canter, the most important is to lighten and free the inside half of your horse. Acting with the inside or outside leg is mostly a matter of tact and timing.

How to start cantering? The aids:

 Support the outside shoulder of the horse with your rein and lighten the horse’s inside shoulder.
 Keep the contact with the inside rein, but stay neutral.
 Lean on your outside buttock by lightly putting your outside shoulder back.
 Ask for the canter depart by putting your outside leg back and touching lightly.
 Keep your inside leg at the girth.

How do you do this with a very young horse?

Shortly after his breaking, the horse can canter very freely from the trot. He canters “large”, without being on the bit or collected. He must now learn to canter at the rider’s command:

Collect the trot a little more, start positioning your aids for the canter depart (outside leg and shoulder a little further back, weight on the outside buttock and reins equally in contact).
 On the short side of the arena, just before the first corner, touch with your outside leg.

At the same time, softly but clearly touch the inside shoulder with a switch and ask with your voice “canter”. (The horse knows the command from being lunged).

Ask on both reins. When the horse gives you an easy canter depart from the trot; proceed the same way from the walk. Then, vary the place where you ask for a canter depart.

Progressively use the classical aids.

My advice
for the canter depart

You have to prepare your canter depart with the greatest care.
First obtain a collected walk, straight, light and vibrant. Your horse will then start cantering at the slightest cue. With a well-trained horse, you will be able to ask for canter by thinking it!

If the horse moves the haunches (“Traverses himself”) in, ask for the canter with your inside leg at the girth. This way, you will control the inside hind and stop the horse from coming inside the arena.
Use the outside leg slightly behind the girth with straight horses.
Do not put your outside leg too far back. The exact position depends on the horse.
Before your leg action, slightly take your leg away from the horse’s flanks.

Work on your canter departs relentlessly. Look for relaxation and perfection.
Do not accept any canter departs. Go back to the walk, think and start again… this is how you will better your horse’s canter.

With a very young horse who is learning:

The canter depart is a source of excitement for a young horse. Do not hesitate to calm your horse at the walk. Reassure him, do another exercise and then start again. After several strides or a completed circle, let go of the reins and reward. Moderate your demands.
If your horse starts cantering with too much energy, do not oppose to the movement. Follow the horse smoothly, stay relaxed and take back while stroking the horse.

How to improve the canter

Improvement of the canter must be done very progressively.

The canter will be improved by executing the canter depart from the walk, not by cantering for long periods of time.

Starting from a collected walk on the long side of the arena, try to keep the collection of the depart during one or two canter circles… then go back to a walk by letting the reins go.
Do the same working on a circle. Canter depart and back to the walk on a circle.

It is time to work on the canter/walk transition.
This has to be done in great relaxation. The transition must be asked with the upper body, not by the hands. The rider must sit deeper, stick out his stomach. This will raise his hands, and then all he will have to do is close his fingers slowly and let go to keep the collection.

In the mean time, also work on the collected trot/canter/collected trot transitions.
Then you will start to ask for canter departs from the halt, above all keeping your horse’s movement fluid.
You must obtain those canter departs with very little aids.

At the same time, also work on transitions within the canter: slow down, extend. The essential is to proceed softly. Essentially use your upper body (hands and legs only confirm the cue).
When the horse manages all the exercises, canters relaxed, starts to carry himself and already has a certain degree of collection, it is time to start with the counter canter.

The counter canter

The horse counter canters when he is on the right hand on a curve to the right, and canters on the left foot, bent to the left and touching the ground in front (of the other legs) with his front and hind left legs.

The horse then has to engage his inside hind leg very strongly when counter cantering, because it is outside of the bend of the horse and has to take a larger stride. Working the counter canter enhances the movement of the hindquarters, engages the hind legs and balances the canter. It is a tremendous tool to develop the canter.

It is a difficult exercise for most young horses. It must be done with a lot of tact.
It must be done starting at the walk.
Leave the rail at A or C, half pass (still walking) to E or B and ask for counter canter (pay attention that your outside shoulder is back - the left shoulder if the canter depart is to the right). Canter to the end of the long side of the arena and get back to a walk before the corner.

Start again the same way, but pass the first corner in the canter without trying to keep the bend toward outside (the side of the lead of the canter). Let the horse’s spine follow the curve of the circle (corner). This posture is easier on the horse at the beginning. Go back to a walk before the second corner.

 Start again the same way, but pass the second corner at the canter. Then, take the diagonal so that your horse is back on the right lead… and can relax.

Then, start going around the whole arena and on circles in a counter canter.
When the horse is at ease on big circles, progressively reduce the size of the circles.

The essential is to keep your horse relaxed in a good cadence.

The shoulder-in in a canter

This exercise, like all the other two-track exercises, will improve the mobility and the receptivity of your horse. Start in the corners and in large circles, just asking for a slight bend. Then ask on the long side of the arena. You must never force the horse to do it.
Your seat and your chest will encourage him to carry himself during the shoulder-in.
Go very progressively.
This exercise is very demanding for the engagement of the hind legs, especially on the inside hind. It will “sit” the horse down, increase his collection and subdue him. This exercise is tremendously useful to improve the canter.

Half-pass in a Canter

Collect more, turn at A or C while keeping a good canter balance, and half-pass toward E or B.

When you turn off the rail, make sure you keep your chest tall and relaxed. Use your seat to push your horse sideways. Also make sure to place the outside part of your body toward the back. Your horse must canter, that means he must jump from one stride to another, not just slide sideways.
Little by little, always with lightness, with the same cadence and keeping the horse “seated”, go through all the half-pass exercises: Shoulders-out (head to the wall, Travers) haunches-out (croup to the wall, Renvers), circles on both hands with the haunches in and the haunches out.

Act progressively, never force the horse. Try to feel where the horse is resisting.

Executing this work with tact and consideration will allow a very slow canter, while keeping good forward thrust ("impulsion"), cadence and elevation. I will later allow the canter pirouette and even the canter on the spot if the horse is capable.

My advice
to improve the galop

Always canter on larger circles with a young horse.

The outside rein must always act parallel to the horse’s body.

Try to replace the action of the inside rein with the action of the inside leg. Give in with your inside rein, it is the outside shoulder of the rider that “sits” the horse.

Act with your chest before you act with your hands.

Do not carry the horse with your hands. He must carry himself. The hand just gives an indication.

Adapt your cues. Dissociate or alternate the bridle bit and the curb bit, to the left or the right, depending if the horse is quickening or accelerating.

As soon as your horse is in balance, stop all hand action (lowering of the hands). Stay aware.

Do not put your legs too far back (lots of riders have this fault). Do not stick your legs to your horse’s sides. All you will achieve is to harden your body and stiffen the horse.

Your legs must be limp when you canter, relaxed but ready. They must act little but every time it is needed.

The inside leg is a wall the horse cannot pass. It is used little for forward thrust.

To sit yourself well and to make yourself taller, put your belly out and push your belly button toward the horse’s ears.
Have heavy buttocks, and your back will be light, your hands will stay light, fixed and independent.
Keep the collection of the canter to the right (for example) by putting your left shoulder toward the back.
Do not abuse the diagonal effects, horseback riding is a wholesome action.

Take particular care of the drawing of your circles when you canter, they must be perfect.
Always keep enough clearance to be able to make your circle wider.
Do not let your horse lean inside or outside. Stay well seated, on your two seat bones.

Do not exaggerate the bend when you canter. Keep your horse on a slight bend, he will stay relaxed.
Do not forget that each horse has a bend that suits him.

Always keep the same rhythm when you canter, the same vibration.
Before any change of direction or speed, increase the collection of your horse.

Try to have a canter that is identical to the right and to the left, whether you canter or counter-canter. Same bend, same rhythm, same posture and same collection. This is very important to be able to start on the lead changes.

Never tolerate cross-canter, under saddle or on the lunge.

 Do not let your horse run, do not let him open (come out of the bit).

The horse must canter in a consistent posture, rhythm and vibration as long as possible, without the rider having to intervene.

At the counter canter

When you work on your first circles at the counter canter, work far away from the rail so you can always enlarge the circle and relieve your horse.
Keep a safety margin. If the horse stiffens, widen the circle.

Never let the croup of the horse escape to the outside.
Only allow a slight bend to the outside when counter cantering.
Keep your rhythm, do not let your horse slow down or, even more important, do not let him speed up.

To round your horse, make sure you work the corners well.

After a counter canter circle, when you take the diagonal, keep the acquired collection. You should feel as if you were slowing down. Keep your horse well “seated”, on a straight line.

It is a common error to bend your horse inside in a counter canter.
The horse must always have a slight bend to the outside (almost straight, but not broken backwards!)
If the horse is not yet confirmed at the counter canter, the neck may stay straight (even a bit bent inside at the very beginning). You then will be able to ask for an outside bend later on.

On the work on two-tracks

When half-passing, do not let the horse lean in the direction of the half-pass.

In a half-pass, the haunches must not escape, in the circle or on a straight line. Pay attention to always keep the horse’s shoulder slightly in front. They must always precede the haunches.

If your half-pass starts wrong, make a circle on the side of the half-pass, prepare and start over.

To half-pass, do not loose the contact with the outside rein and keep the contact during the entire half-pass.

When doing a shoulder-in at the canter, do not force the horse to come inside by pulling with the inside rein, but bring the bend inside with the chest and by supporting the outside rein.

Fréquently encountered Problems

For the canter depart :

My horse does not canter

The horse is not ready. Increase the vibration of the preceding walk or trot. Ask again but do not harden your aids.
Ask yourself if the coordination of your aids is correct.
My horse precedes the cue
The horse understood what is asked. It is a “goodwill fault” (a good fault). At the beginning, accept the depart and put the horse back in a walk.
Ask again while calming the horse (talk to him) and become very light with your aids before the depart. If it is a young horse, stop using the switch on the shoulder.
With a more advanced horse, prepare your depart with more care.
My horse takes off when I ask for canter
Work on the preparation of your canter departs. Calm the horse, do a couple of shoulder-ins.
Ask for the canter on the other rein.
Have lighter aids.
Do several canter departs with loose reins. The horse will calm down fast.
My horse raises his neck at the moment of depart
The cause might be the preparation. The horse is startled. Calm him down, prepare again, and start over.
Or your aids are too strong.
The hand actions are too strong and badly coordinated. The hand prevents the movement that was requested with the legs and the backing up of the outside shoulder.
Ask for the canter depart without any hand action, let the front end free. Do not hesitate to let go of the reins. Reward.
When the horse is calm again, use the classical aids again with a lot of tact in your hands.
My horse canters on the wrong lead
The preparation is the cause. Your posture tells the horse to canter on the wrong lead. The horse is not prepared to canter on the right lead, because of his physical and mental conditioning.
Go back to a walk and put your horse in a half-pass head to the wall (Travers), discreetly and delicately. At the moment you straighten the horse, ask for canter.
Ask for this canter depart on the rail before a corner.
My horse cross-canters

The coordination of your aids is incorrect. The hands and chest position the horse to canter on the right and the legs position the haunches to canter to the right, or the opposite.
Work harder on your chest position (the outside shoulder must be a little further back).
Ask for canter before a corner.
Very often, the hand blocks the shoulders on one side (too much bend or inverted bend). Balance your hands and keep the horse’s head in the axis of direction.
If everything is prepared well, the horse could have physical problems, notably in his back. He is not ready to canter. A hip or a shoulder could be functioning differently. Feel, observe, think and direct your work on the problem toward a hoped for result.

My leg cue for the canter

My horse cannot differentiate between my leg cue for canter and my leg cue to move the haunches.
The outside leg aid to ask for half-pass is really similar to the aid for the canter depart. If the leg acts alone, the 
 horse can get confused.
 Therefore, you must prepare your request and put your horse in the appropriate balance.

 A canter depart is not just putting the leg behind the girth. You must also back up your outside shoulder, put a 
 little more weight on your outside buttock, lighten the inside shoulder of the horse, and put your outside leg back 
 slightly or even very slightly.
 If the horse puts his haunches in, rather ask for canter with your inside leg.
 The shoulders and the eyes are facing forward, in the line with the horse’s body.

On the opposite when half-passing, look in the axis of direction, put your shoulders parallel to the horse’s 
shoulders. Smoothly take your hips and your body toward your inside elbow. When asking for half-pass, put your  outside leg further back than you do for canter


My horse confuses the outside leg aid for half-pass with the aid for canter
The outside leg aid to ask for half-pass is indeed very close to the aid for the canter depart. If the leg only is used, the horse can be confused.
You must therefore carefully prepare your aids and put your horse in the correct balance.

A canter depart is not asked only with the outside leg. You must also move your outside shoulder back, put a little more weight in your left buttock, lighten the inside shoulder of the horse and move your outside leg back a little or very little. If the horse moves his haunches in, rather use your inside leg to ask for canter depart. The shoulders and the eyes are directed forward, in the axis of the horse.

Unlike the canter, in a half-pass you must look in the direction in which you are going, putting your shoulders parallel to the horse's shoulders. Delicately send your hip and your body toward your inside elbow. To ask for half-pass, move your leg further back than for the canter depart.

At the beginning, you can also use the voice aid. Say, "canter", like on the lunge, for the canter depart. You might very delicately use a crop on the inside shoulder for the canter depart (just the weight of the crop) and on the outside hip for the half-pass.
Also, when first teaching the horse, do not ask for canter depart and half-pass at the same spot in the arena.

Rather ask for half-pass when leaving the rail on the short side of the arena or on a diagonal.
Ask for canter on a circle or on the long side of the arena.

Everything is a matter of tact, especially if your horse is sharp.
If you pay special attention to your preparation, your actions and your balance, your horse will know how to make the difference quickly. Improvement should come fast.

Posture-position / Walk / Trot / Canter / Shoulder-in / half-pass /Flying change of lead/ Tempi changes / The canter Pirouette / Piaffe

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