Canter is a three-beat gait, with a moment of suspension where all four of your pony’s feet are off the ground between each stride. The sequence of footfalls is outside hindleg, followed by inside hindleg and outside foreleg at the same time, then inside foreleg.
In this sequence, your pony’s said to be on the correct lead, as he’s able to stay well-balanced on a bend. If he strikes off with his inside hindleg, this is the wrong lead and he’ll find it harder to stay balanced.
You can tell what lead he’s on by glancing down at his inside shoulder – this should be stretching out further forward than his outside shoulder. With practice, you’ll be able to feel what’s correct without looking!
Did you know? To ask your pony for canter, go into sitting trot, keep your inside leg on the girth, move your outside leg just behind the girth to let him know to strike off on the correct lead, then squeeze.
What makes a good canter?
A top-scoring canter has an even three-beat rhythm, and is balanced, straight and has plenty of impulsion. Your position plays a really important role in this. Think about…
- sitting up as tall as possible and pulling your shoulders back to keep your body strong and upright
- pushing your heels down and wrapping your legs around your pony’s sides to maintain impulsion and encourage straightness
- keeping an even, steady rein contact to contain his energy and help keep him straight
Troubleshooting: wrong lead
If you struggle to get your pony to strike off on the correct lead successfully, think about…
- your trot In order to ride a correct canter transition, your pony needs to have an active, balanced trot. Ride transitions to make sure you have plenty of impulsion, then use a half-halt before you ask for a canter transition to make sure he’s not rushing into it.
- your bend A corner is the best place to ask for a canter transition, as it ensures your pony’s on the correct bend. Try riding a couple of 20m circles before asking for the transition to help him out even more.
- your position Bring your outside leg slightly behind the girth and push him into the corner with your inside leg. Keep your outside rein steady and open your inside rein slightly to encourage him to bend.
Top tip – If your pony strikes off on the wrong lead, simply bring him back to trot, then ask again when you’re prepared.
Troubleshooting: lazy canter
Riding a lazy canter feels like a real leg workout as you try to stop your pony falling back into trot. Some things you can do to improve it include…
- using upwards and downwards transitions Always encourage him to be forward off your leg when you’re riding transitions. Try lengthening his stride along the long side of the arena, then shortening it on the short side.
- using your leg effectively Constant nagging with your leg will soon encourage him to switch off and ignore your aids. Only use your leg when needed and, if he doesn’t respond, back it up with a tap behind your leg with a schooling whip.
Did you know? A disunited canter is when your pony moves the pair of legs on the same side together instead of the diagonal pair. It feel super-strange to ride and makes him unbalanced, so be sure to bring him back to trot before asking for a canter transition again.
Troubleshooting: strong canter
When a pony’s super-strong, he’ll feel really heavy in your hand, which means it can be hard to maintain your position without being pulled forward. Ponies are often strong when they’re overexcited or unbalanced.
You can focus his attention and bring him back to your aids by setting up four poles on a 20m circle like a clock face – the poles should lie on 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock.
Start by cantering over two poles on the circle at a time, then gradually build up to all four. Your pony will need to be balanced to ride this exercise, so sit up tall in the saddle and maintain your contact, while using your legs to push him around the circle.
Top tip – Aim to fit the same number of canter strides between each pole. That way, you know your canter’s super-rhythmical, too!
Troubleshooting: wonky canter
A straight canter is key when it comes to getting top dressage marks and a straight approach to a fence, which will help you leave them up. Just like people are right or left handed, lots of ponies prefer one direction to another.
Straighten his canter by creating a channel of poles, set up a little wider than his body. Ride through the channel, aiming to keep totally straight and not touch any of the poles. You can make the channel longer and narrower to up the challenge.