Most horses have three gaits: the walk, the trot and the canter (the gallop is usually regarded as a faster, four-beat version of the canter).
The walk and trot are easy to understand and easy to ride. By contrast, the canter gait can be more difficult to master, although it is more comfortable.
When a horse canters in a circle, the first hoof to strike the ground is that of the hind leg on the outside of the circle. The last leg to hit the ground is the inside foreleg; this is also the leg that the rider uses to check if the ‘canter lead’ is correct.
Horses naturally canter on the correct lead when not being ridden, as it helps them to balance when they go around a corner. Normally, horses take the wrong lead only once they are broken in under saddle.
However, it can be quite dangerous to ride a horse at the canter if it is on the wrong lead, especially around sharp corners. The rider’s weight can unbalance the horse so severely that it may go down.
The canter has a rolling and a floating phase, as the horse’s energy thrust starts from behind, moves to the two diagonal legs and on to the inside front.
After this, there is a floating feeling due to the moment of suspension, as the horse gathers its outside hind leg underneath it to propel its body forward. You can feel this as you ride, or you can cheat a little and see if the inside foreleg is moving out in front of the horse.
Some horses consistently take the wrong lead and frustrate the rider. This is seldom the horse’s ‘fault’; the mistake occurs because the rider is unbalanced and ‘asking’ the lead incorrectly.
Some riders cannot feel which lead they are riding and, if not careful, will teach a horse to always canter on the same lead, regardless of which direction they turn.
Part of schooling a horse correctly is to build up muscles and teach flexion, as well as yielding to a leg aid, before you ask for a canter lead. When initially backing a horse, lunge it in a round pen with the saddle on.
To encourage the horse to bend its spine and make it easier to canter on the correct lead, buckle the inside rein from the lunging caveson to the inside ring on the saddle so that it is slightly shorter than the outside rein.
Encourage the horse to perform the upward transition from the trot with the verbal cue, “Can-ter!” and use the lunging whip just behind the hind leg.
In a young horse that has just been broken in, ask for no more than two circles at the canter, then return to a trot, using the verbal cue “Trot!”
Building up suppleness
The next step in getting the horse to take the correct lead is to make it supple under saddle, building up muscles and flexibility by riding large circles with the animal correctly flexed in both directions at the walk and trot.
Introduce leg cues at the walk. Only once the horse is responding to these, should you teach the canter departure.
Ride at a rising trot and, three strides before the corner, lift the inside shoulder by picking up the inside hand. Hold the shoulder up by squeezing gently with your inside leg on the girth.
Sit into the trot without rising and lean slightly back, with your weight evenly distributed as you give a cue with the outside leg, behind the girth. Say “Can-ter!” at the same time, and the horse should break into a canter.
Dr Mac is an academic, equine veterinarian and stud owner.