The canter is described as a three-beat gait, but a good canter really has four counts: three footfalls and a moment of suspension. When the suspension is lost and the strides no longer lift off the ground, the canter deteriorates into four footfalls.
If your horse has a tendency toward a flat, four-beat canter, take a look first at the quality of the free walk. The footfall sequence of the walk is somewhat related to that of the canter, without the lift. So, if the horse has a decent walk, there’s certainly hope for the canter to improve as well.
Ironically, one of the best ways to develop a good canter, one with a lot of suspension and swing, is to gallop. The canter requires more strength than the gallop. Riders who are afraid of a little speed, but who haven’t conditioned their horses to sustain the demands of the slower gait, make their horses canter too slowly. As a result, the horse’s gait deteriorates, he stumbles, or he breaks to the trot.
The best place to build up a canter is in an open flat field with good grass footing, where you don’t have to deal with corners every few strides and can make really large circles.
Even when working in your ring, you may surprise yourself by how much your canter will improve by simply asking for more pace. Get up into two-point position so the horse’s back can swing more easily, cut your corners, and ask your horse to pick up the tempo. Although you’re in two-point, keep your shoulders back and stay up over your horse’s center of balance so he doesn’t make his stride short and quick to maintain his balance. If you circle, keep it at least 20 meters or larger.
Work in short canter sets that your horse can sustain. If he’s only strong enough to canter halfway around the ring, ask him to trot after just a couple of corners, before he needs to break.
Another solution is to build canter strength on the longe line. It’s unreasonable to ask a weak or unbalanced horse to canter at a decorous pace with the additional weight of a rider.
It can worry a rider if the horse isn’t totally confirmed on his leads. If he picks up the wrong lead before a corner, he may get frantic about his balance. In this case, prepare your horse to expect a downward transition before each short side of the arena. Trot down the long side of the ring and halt facing into the corner.
Then turn the horse at the walk, pick up the trot through the remainder of the short side, trot down the next long side and halt again. Continue to repeat this exercise until you feel the horse start to anticipate each short side.
Without changing direction, ask for the canter as you leave the short side of the ring. If the horse picks up the wrong lead or gets too quick, you know you’ll be able to regain the trot before the end of the ring where he’s already looking for the down transition. If the canter feels good, then continue to follow the motion with your hips and ask him to maintain the gait through the end of the arena. When he’s straight on the long side request the trot before he starts to look for it himself.
Change directions and repeat the sequence with the trot/halt transitions before you attempt to canter through the short end of the arena and on around for a complete circuit. This “halt” phase shouldn’t last more than a few days.
Once you know you can safely halt your horse, it’s easier to be confident that you can safely canter him. When you can comfortably make it all the way around the ring without breaking or rushing, you won’t need the halts any more.
After the horse builds enough strength to canter with some speed around the entire arena a couple of times, the rider can request a slower pace. At this point, it’s important that the rider doesn’t allow the horse to hang on the reins. The horse may look to the rider as the source of balance, but the rider needs to have the horse carry him, not the other way around.
Without throwing away the reins completely, the rider should release the contact briefly several times on each circuit of the ring or on each circle. If the horse shifts his weight forward in response and leans on the reins in the longer frame, then the rider needs to add a little pace before each slight release to keep the horse pushing from behind and not pulling himself along with his front legs.
If your horse has learned leg-yield at the walk and trot, the same aids can be transferred to the suspension phase of the canter stride. Ride in a slight shoulder-fore position with support from the rider’s outside leg and hand and with the horse’s inside leg reaching well under his body. Add an increased “touch” to the outside rein at the highest point of each stride.
You can test your horse’s ability to sustain a slower canter by making your circles a little smaller. Ride from a 20-meter circle down to about 18 meters. If the horse feels unbalanced or the stride starts to lose its suspension, then go back out to 20 meters. When you can ride an 18-meter circle comfortably, you can attempt the next smaller increment.
Remember that your corners should be the arc of the smallest circle where your horse can comfortably maintain his balance. If he’s not ready for a circle that’s smaller than 20 meters, he’s also not ready for tight corners.
All the time you spend trotting won’t help you develop the canter — you have to actually canter to do that. So, each day determine to canter a little farther than you did the day before. Half a circle will be lengthened to a full circle and then two circles in each direction within just a few days. Before you know it, you’ll have a steady, balanced canter.