The canter is a 3-beat movement. This gait has a period of suspension after each stride. This gait starts with the hind leg then leads to the front in a rocking motion. It can have either a right lead or a left lead. Horses can do both, depending on how you cue them.
The speed of the canter varies between 10–17 mph (16–27 km/h) , 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 8–12 mph (13–19 km/h).
It has been proposed that the origin of the word canter 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.
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:
Beat One: the grounding phase of the outside hind leg. There are many riders who think a front leg is the first beat of the canter, which is incorrect. At this time, the other three legs are off the ground.
Beat Two: the simultaneous grounding phase of the inside hind leg and outside fore leg. The inside fore leg is still off the ground. The outside hind leg (beat one), is still touching the ground, but is about to be lifted off.
Beat Three: The grounding phase of the inside foreleg. The outside hind leg (beat one), is off the ground. The inside hind leg and outside foreleg are still touching the ground, but are about to be lifted up. The inside hindleg and outside foreleg (beat two) are lifted off the ground. The inside foreleg is the only foot supporting the horse’s weight.The inside foreleg is lifted off the ground.
Then, Suspension: The horse has all four legs off the ground.
Then the movement pattern begins to repeat again. The faster the horse is moving, the longer is the time of the phase of suspension relative to the time of the three beats.
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 role of leads in a canter
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.
A variant canter, involving the same sequence of beats but variant footfalls in beats one and two, is often referred to as cross-firing, cross-cantering, or a 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 difference between a canter and a gallop
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.
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, working canter (also known as a regular canter), and an extended canter, these are points on a spectrum, not ends in themselves. A well trained horse should be able to lengthen and shorten as much as the rider desires.
The spectrum of cantering
Working Canter – The natural canter given by a horse, with normal stride length. This is the working gait of hunt seat riders. It is also used by all other disciplines.
Medium Canter – A canter between the working canter and extended canter. It is bigger and rounder than the working, with great impulsion, and very forward with moderate extension. The medium canter is common in dressage and show jumping.
Collected Canter – An extremely engaged, collected gait (collection refers to having the horse’s balance shifted backward towards its hind legs, with more weight taken by the hindquarters). The strides are shorter, springier, and the horse’s frame is short and compressed. The collected canter is required in upper-level dressage tests. It is also very important in show jumping, as the rider often needs to shorten the horse’s stride according to the distance between two fences.
Extended Canter – An extension of the canter, where the horse’s frame lengthens and the horse takes larger stride, covering as much ground as possible without losing the 3-beat gait. It is very engaged, but not a true gallop. The extended canter should have great impulsion. A flat, long canter is not a true extended canter, and is incorrect for proper work.
Hand Gallop – In the United States, show hunters may be asked to hand gallop when shown on the flat or in certain jumping classes. The hand gallop differs from a true gallop, in that the horse should not speed up enough to lose the 3 beat rhythm of the canter, and from the extended canter in that the horse should be allowed to lengthen its frame substantially and is not expected to engage as much as in an extended canter.
While the extended canter is intended to demonstrate and improve athleticism and responsiveness to the aids, show hunters are asked to hand gallop primarily to illustrate the horse’s manners and training.
In the hand gallop the hunter should increase its pace without becoming excited or difficult to handle, and should respond immediately to the rider’s request to return to the canter or perform a different maneuver.
Lope – A type of slow, relaxed canter seen in western horses, performed on a loose rein with less collection than a collected canter, but at about the same speed or slower. There is less suspension than in an English-style canter. The horse has a longer, less-rounded frame and carries its head lower, but the gait is still 3-beat and the horse must be well-engaged in the hindquarters to do a proper lope.
Specific movements of the canter
Specific movements of the canter are often required in dressage competition, and for working horses like western cutting horses, but are also important for the general training of any riding horse for any discipline.
Counter-Canter – The rider asks for the “wrong” lead. This is a movement asked for in dressage tests. It is also a general schooling movement, as the horse must stay very balanced to keep a nice canter while on the opposite lead, and is an important step to teaching a horse the flying change.
Simple Change – The horse changes lead through the trot or, more correctly, through the walk. When changing through the walk, the horse should not break into the trot.
Simple changes are a preparatory step before teaching the horse flying changes. They are also asked for this in dressage.
In jumping, they may be used as an alternative for horses that do not yet know how to perform a flying change, so the rider may still change the lead between fences.
Flying Change – The horse performs a lead change during the suspension phase of the canter, switching leads in the air. It is a relatively advanced movement.
Barrel racers change leads at each barrel before making the turn, so the horse has better balance and can turn closer to the barrel, giving them a faster time.
In dressage, the horse may perform multiple changes, one after the other (this is called tempis). This is judged in dressage (both Grand Prix and eventing) and reining competition, as well as show hunter classes and hunt seat equitation.
Although not specifically judged, it is also important in all jumping competition, including the jumping phases of eventing, show jumping, and fox hunting.
Pirouette – The horse turns around its hindquarters, moving the forehand in a large circle, while the hind feet stay on a smaller circle almost in place. This movement is used in dressage, and requires a very collected canter. It is also a general training movement, used to encourage and test the enegagement of the horse’s canter.
Roll-back or Roll-back Turn – Where a horse does a 180 degree turn at the canter. When used in show jumping, eventing, and hunt seat equitation, the rider lands from a jump, then makes a tight turn (usually 180 degrees) to the next one.
This move is usually used by western riders in reining patterns where the horse is brought to a sliding stop, but without any hesitation immediately spins 180 degrees over its hocks and begins to run in the opposite direction.