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The canter is a controlled, three-beat gait performed by a horse. It is a natural gait possessed by all horses, faster than most horses' trot but slower than the gallop, and is used by all riders. The speed of the canter varies between 16–27 km/h (10–17 mph), depending on the length of the stride of the horse. A variation of the canter, seen in western riding, is called a lope, and generally is quite slow, no more than 13–19 km/h (8–12 mph).
One popular myth is that the origin of the word comes from the English city of Canterbury, a place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, as referred-to in The Canterbury Tales, where the comfortable speed for a pilgrim travelling some distance on horseback was above that of a trot but below that of a gallop.
The canter is a three-beat gait, meaning that there are three footfalls heard per stride. Each footfall is the "grounding" phase of a leg. The three footfalls are evenly spaced, and followed by the "suspension" phase of the gait, which is when all four legs are off the ground. The three beats and suspension are considered one stride. The movement for one stride is as follows:
The faster the horse is moving, the longer is the time of the phase of suspension relative to the time of the three beats.
The "lead" of a canter refers to the order in which the legs are placed, and is determined by which leg is the last to ground before the suspension phase. If the left hind leg is placed first (beat one), which would then be followed by the right hind and left foreleg (beat two), before the right foreleg (beat three), the horse is said to be on the "right lead." If the right hind leg is beat one, then the left foreleg will be the last leg to ground, and the horse will be said to be on the "left lead." Therefore, a person on the ground can tell which lead the horse is on by watching the front and rear legs and determining which is the last one to touch the ground, but may also simply watch to see on which side the legs are literally "leading", landing in front of the opposing side.
When the horse is on a lead, the legs on that side (usually the inside front and hind) have greater extension than those on the other side (usually the outside front and hind). Therefore, a horse on the right lead will have its right hind (beat two) come slightly further under its body than the left hindleg had when it grounded (beat one), and the right foreleg (beat three) will reach further out from the horse's body than the left foreleg had extended (beat two).
In general, the horse is on the "correct" lead when it matches the direction it is going. So a horse turning to the right should be on the right lead, a horse turning to the left should be on the left lead. However, just as people find it easier to write with one hand or the other, most horses have a "better side", on which they find it easier to lead at a canter. In limited circumstances, mostly in dressage training, a horse may be deliberately asked to take the lead opposite of the direction it is traveling. In such cases, this type of canter is called a counter-canter.
A variant canter, involving the same sequence of beats but variant footfalls in beats one and two, is often referred to by equestrians as cross-firing, cross-cantering, or disunited canter, among other terms. To the observer, the horse appears to be leading with one leg in front, but the opposite leg behind. It is produced by an improper sequence of footfalls.
The problem with this sequence is in beat two: the grounded hind and foreleg are NOT diagonal pairs, but are on the same side of the horse (in this case, the outside). This means that the horse is balancing on only one side of its body, which is very difficult for the horse, making it hard to keep the animal balanced, rhythmical, and keeping impulsion. A horse that is cross-firing cannot perform to the best of its ability, and can even be dangerous (such as an unbalanced, cross-firing horse who must jump a huge, solid cross-country obstacle). Additionally, it makes for a very uncomfortable, awkward ride, producing a rolling movement often described as riding an eggbeater, which makes it difficult for the rider to perform to the best of his or her abilities.
The canter and gallop are related gaits, as the rider simply asks the horse to gallop from the canter by allowing it to lengthen its stride until it is four-beat, rather than three-beat. When the stride is sufficiently lengthened, the diagonal pair of beat two breaks, resulting in the inside hind striking first, before the outside fore. The horse is able to easily move in and out of the gallop using the canter.
Although the walk, trot, and canter can be collected to very short, engaged strides, the gallop, should it be collected as far as possible, will turn into a canter stride. In the same sense, if the canter stride is lengthened to the extreme, it will invariably turn into the gallop. This doesn't mean that the rider cannot achieve an extended canter, but care must be taken to maintain the purity of the gaits.
The canter can be further divided by the frame and impulsion of the horse. It should be noted that while there is a "collected" canter, "regular" or "working canter, and an "extended" canter, these are points on a spectrum, not ends in themselves. A truly adjustable, trained horse should be able to lengthen and shorten as much as the rider desires.
Understanding the motion of the canter is important if a person wants to ride the horse with a balanced, secure, yet flexible seat. To the rider, the horse's back feels as if it is moving both up and down as well as somewhat back and forth, not unlike the motion of a swing. When the hind legs engage (which occurs just before beat one), the horse raises its head and neck as its hind leg steps under. As the legs push off the ground (beats 1-2) the head and neck of the horse drops. When the leading leg (beat 3) touches the ground, the head and neck are as low as they will be for the stride, and then they begin to come back up as the horse places its weight on its leading leg. During the suspension phase, the head and neck continue back to the highest point as the hind legs come back under the body.
The canter is generally easier to learn to sit than the sitting trot. However, it requires a supple seat that is correctly balanced.
The canter may be ridden in three ways: sitting, half-seat, and two-point. In a half-seat and/or two-point position, as described below, the rider's seat is raised out of the saddle to some extent, the upper body leaning forward slightly, enough to balance over the horse's center of gravity, and more weight is carried in the stirrups. This position provides more freedom for the horse, especially over rough terrain or when jumping. When a rider sits the canter, the seat remains firmly in the saddle at all times, allowing a more secure position and greater control over the horse.
Seat: the rider's seat bones remain in contact with the saddle at all times. The rider "rolls" with the canter, allowing free movement in the hips and relaxation in the thighs. The hips move from a backward position, to an upright position aligned with the body, to a slightly forward position, in relation to the gait. So when the 1-2-3 of the footfalls occur, the seat is moving forward. During the suspension phase, it moves back. The rider should focus on making a sweeping motion with the hips. A good visualization technique is for a rider to imagine sweeping the saddle with one's seat, or to visualize sitting in a swing, using the seat muscles to gently move it going back and forth.
Upper body: The upper body remains still while sitting, allowing the hips to move underneath the upper body. The shoulders should not "pump", or go forward and back. If the upper body moves, it is usually a sign that the rider is tense. The forward incline of the rider's upper body may vary, from very upright (used in a collected canter), to slightly forward (used in the lengthened canter if the rider is using the forward seat). However, the shoulders should still remain back and still.
Lower leg: The lower leg should remain still when sitting the canter. If it moves, the rider is tense, or gripping with the thigh. The heel will sink down slightly and the knee angle may open with the footfalls, absorbing the shock of the gait.
Hands and Elbows: The hands should keep steady contact with the horse's mouth. Visually the rider keeps a straight line between the elbow and the mouth of the horse, which requires a relaxed arm that can follow the motion of the horse's neck. The rider must account for that movement by allowing the elbow angle to open and close: opening during the footfalls, and closing during the suspension phase after the footfalls. To do this, the rider needs a steady, elastic contact, rather than mechanically pushing the hands forward or back.
In a half-seat position, the rider's seat bones are lifted out of the saddle, and only the pelvis has contact. It is used for jumping when some seat aid may be necessary, especially for sharp turns, when riding downhills, on the approach to potentially spooky fences, or when the rider wishes to collect the stride. This seat is a compromise, allowing the jumping rider to have greater control than in two-point, but still keeping the majority of the rider's weight off the horse's back.
The rider in half-seat should have almost the same body position as one who sits the canter, except the shoulders are inclined slightly forward and the pelvis is rotated forward, keeping the seat bones free of the saddle. The rider should still keep the hip angle nicely open, and the lower back soft.
There is disagreement about the use of the term "three point" position. Some scholars use this term to describe the half-seat, others use it to describe a rider sitting all the way down in the saddle. Conversely, some instructors use the term "half seat" to describe a full two-point jumping seat.
Two-point position is ridden similar to half-seat, except the rider's seat bones are off the saddle. This position is used for jumping and galloping, as it is easy to stay out of the horse's way and gives the horse the most freedom to use its body. However, the position also provides the least amount of control, and so is only used when the horse's behavior and body is focused properly. This position requires a rider to have good base of leg strength to perform well for long periods, and it can be quite tiring. Two-point is seen when galloping uphill or in straight lines on flat ground, doing large, wide turns at moderate speed, and when approaching a jump that the horse should jump easily, without needing any assistance from the rider.
In polo and polocrosse, two-point position is called "standing" and the rider in fact stands upright in the stirrups. This helps to isolate the rider's upper body from the motion of the horse, and to allow the rider's hips to rotate as the rider turns sideways in order to swing the playing stick (polo mallet, polocrosse racquet) on the side the horse opposite the stick hand. Some polo instructors recommend standing in the saddle for all strokes.
The rider may ask for a canter depart (aids for the horse to step into the canter) on the flat from trot, walk, or halt. There are three ways to ask for the canter depart while on the flat, which may be used according to the horse's level of training.
Additionally, the rider may ask for the canter as the horse jumps a fence (if the fence was taken at the walk, trot, or halt) or may ask for the horse to switch leads over the fence.
Aids: The rider applies the outside leg slightly further back from its normal position, which activates the outside hind (the first beat of the intended lead). At the same time, he or she uses the outside rein to flex the horse's head toward the outside, which frees up the animal's inside shoulder, encouraging it to fall into that lead. If the rider were to ask for the left lead, for example, he or she would apply the right leg behind the girth and use the right rein to turn the horse's head to the right. To make the rider's intent even clearer, the horse may be angled slightly toward the outside rail of the arena, which will guide it into taking the correct lead as it goes towards the unobstructed inside, and also discourages the horse from simply running onto the forehand.
Purpose and Drawbacks:These aids are preferred for green horses, as they are clear and simple. However, they bend the horse in the direction opposite of the turn, resulting in a crooked canter.
Aids: The rider applies the outside leg slightly further back from its neutral position, thereby activating the horse's outside hind leg, while adding the inside rein aid to indicate the direction of travel. This technique is later refined, first asking with the outside leg aid before adding the inside rein and a push with the inside seat bone. The refined sequence usually makes for a quicker and more balanced depart, and prepares the horse for use of the inside lateral aids.
Purpose and Drawbacks: An intermediate step, this is the most commonly used sequence of aids by amateur riders, and is usually the one taught to beginners. The canter is generally straighter when asked in this way than when asked with the outside lateral aids, but still may not have the correct bend throughout the body.
Preparation and Timing: The rider prepares for the transition by using half-halts to balance the horse, and bends him slightly in the intended direction. Since the first footfall of the canter is the outside hind leg, the rider times the aids to ask for the canter when the outside hind leg is engaged (i.e. under the body). So, at the trot the rider would ask when the inside front leg touches the ground (its shoulder will be forward). At the walk, the rider will ask when the outside shoulder starts to move back.
Aids:To ask for the depart, the rider adds the inside leg near the girth, pushes slightly with the inside seat bone, and uses inside direct rein to indicate the direction of travel. The outside leg (slightly behind the girth) and outside rein passively support the inside aids. The combination of aids asks the horse to bend to the inside, directing it to pick up the correct lead.
Purpose: This is the most advanced sequence, used for simple- and flying-changes as well as counter-canter, and requires the horse to be properly "on the aids." These aids result in a prompt response from the horse and a balanced, engaged canter. It is appropriate for more advanced riders with independent seats, and for horses that have a good base of training.
Purpose: The rider may need a specific lead after landing from a fence, especially useful for show jumping. A rider may also trot a fence (and even walk or jump a fence from a standstill), and wish to cue the horse to canter on after the fence. Asking the horse for a specific lead can also be used as a training technique for horses who anticipate turning a certain direction.
Aids: To ask for a specific lead while in the air, the rider should look in the intended direction of travel, not down. The rider should lead the horse in the direction of the turn by applying the opening rein aid without pulling backward, while the other hand releases as usual. The outside leg is moved slightly back, and the rider adds slightly more weight to the inside knee. However, the rider should not shift weight so much that he or she becomes unbalanced or has the heels come up.
Exercises: In general, horses tend to switch their leads from the one on which they approached as they go over an obstacle. So if they approached on the right lead, they will land on the left. This is because of how they line up their hind legs as they push on take off. A rider can practice asking for a certain lead by trotting a small vertical, and asking for the canter over the fence.
The canter stride should be easily lengthened and shortened, making the horse "adjustable" between fences so that it may meet the distance correctly. Lengthening and shortening are also key components to dressage tests.
In general, the rider should use half-halts as the horse is raising its head and neck upward (during the suspension phase), because this is when the horse is engaging its hindquarters.
When the horse shortens its stride, it rebalances its weight toward the hindquarters. In the actual collected canter, the horse should carry the majority of its weight on the hind end, rather than the front end. The hindquarters will sink lower toward the ground, and the forehand will appear higher and lighter. The horse should maintain tempo, rhythm, and impulsion.
To shorten the horse's stride, the rider sits taller and lengthens the spine. He or she also performs multiple half-halts in rhythm with the horse's strides, using the restraining aids to ask the horse to engage the hindquarters, yet keeping the leg to the horse's sides to keep impulsion. The rider should not hold the aids or hang onto the horse's mouth when shortening. If the rider does not keep sufficient leg on, the horse will simply fall onto the forehand or break into the trot or walk.
The lengthened canter results in a longer frame from the horse, with a larger stride. The horse should still maintain impulsion, and care should be taken that it is not driven forward ontothe forehand. Rhythm and tempo stay the same.
To lengthen the canter, the rider uses his or her legs against the horse's sides in rhythm with the gait. The leg aids should be applied as the hind legs are engaging. This is the time when the rider's seat moves forward in the canter stride. Additionally, the rider should engage the seat at the same time as the leg aids are used, "rolling" is forward with the canter motion. Contact may be lightened, but should not be dropped. The rider should not lean forward.
The most important function of the correct lead is for balance. While they are unimportant on a straight line, they can greatly influence the athletic ability of a horse on turns, especially if the turn is tight or performed at speed. Horses naturally lean in to the direction they are turning. Since they extend their lead-side legs further out, they may use them to balance themselves as they lean into that direction. So, if on the right lead while taking a right turn, the right hind will be positioned more under the body, and the right foreleg more in front of the body, to act as a stabilizer as the horse turns.
When on the incorrect lead, the horse is usually left unbalanced. In this case, correct riding can make the difference in the horse's performance. Good riding can keep the legs positioned correctly enough so that the horse is still able to perform the turn. Poor riding will hinder rather than help the horse, and in extreme situations such as a tight turn at speed, the horse may lose its legs footing and fall.
Specific movements of the canter are often required in dressage competition, but are also important for the general training of any riding horse for any discipline.