“A canter is the cure for every evil.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli
The canter is indeed high on the list as one of the thrills while riding a horse. The three-beat rocking horse canter with a brief moment of being airborne can be one of those memorable feel-good experiences, logged in the brain for life.
A calm canter depart is the start of developing this dreamy gait. When working with a young horse, or one that is reluctant to break into the canter, be sure to approach the subject in an unhurried fashion and have a plan.
In a western or English saddle, an easy way to get a canter depart is from a very active forward posting trot without rushing your steed off his feet. Establish your forward trot and choosing the direction that your horse prefers, head for a corner of your arena and make a gentle curving line. At some point, the horse will want to break into canter; it’s less work than a butt-busting trot. Don’t stop posting and take advantage of that moment by applying your cue for the canter. If your horse just trots faster slow him back down and ask again. Sometimes, if you ask for a strong forward trot, then slow down the trot slightly and sit to apply the cue for the canter, it will encourage your horse to strike off into the canter.
The canter is a 3-beat gait. If you are making a circle to the right, the inside is the right side of the horse, and the outside is the left side of the horse. Beat 1 is the left hind leg, or outside hind, striking off. Beat 2 is the diagonal pair of legs that move together – the inside right hind and the outside left foreleg. Beat 3 is the right foreleg – the inside foreleg – and when going to the right, the horse will be in better balance especially while on a circle to the right. We say the horse is on the correct lead, because the inside or right foreleg is the leading leg that goes more forward than the other foreleg in this gait. Beat 3 is followed by a moment of suspension when all four feet are off the ground.
Most riders ask for the canter by slightly moving the outside leg back and squeezing it against the horse’s side. This is because you are asking for the outside hind leg to strike off to begin the canter, resulting in the horse’s leading leg to be on the inside to be in better balance.
If you ask your horse to canter, and he strikes off on the wrong lead – do nothing – you’re cantering! The horse obliged with the correct gait. Let him canter for a bit. Then you can break back to trot, rev-up the engine again if necessary, and try the canter again until you get the correct lead. When you do, tell him what a genius he is! You’ll find that your horse progressively begins to pick up the correct lead more often, until right and left leads are firmly established.
After you have established a smooth canter depart from the trot and you are sure your horse understands the canter aid; you can try asking for it from a walk. Without hurrying, establish a forward-marching balanced walk that feels like it has a bit of bounce to it. You will probably experience some trot strides before getting the canter, but with repetition, the number of trot strides will diminish until your horse can strike off into the canter directly from the walk.
When you train the canter in this fashion, and all is going to plan, the horse seamlessly slides into it without rushing. If you establish the forward energetic trot or walk before asking for canter, you won’t have to kick, use a crop or spur, and all will be well. If things don’t go to plan – no worries. Take a break, re-organize yourself, establish that wonderful walk or trot and try again. Your confidence will make it happen.