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Learn How To Properly Canter On A Horse

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One of the most common questions we receive from readers is how to canter on a horse properly. Whether you are new to horses and you’re not sure what canter means, or you are more experienced with horses and you would like to learn how to canter your horse, this is the article for you. Now, let’s start with what exactly we mean by “canter.”

What does it mean to canter a horse?

Horses have a three-beat gait. In Western discipline, this is called the lope. However, it is referred to as the canter in the English discipline. Do not confuse this with the gallop, a much faster four-beat gait.

The canter will have either a right or left lead. The lead is determined by which hind foot starts first. In the right lead, the left hind foot takes the first step. This beat is followed by the right hind and left front moving simultaneously. The last step made by the right front foot makes the third beat. In order to pick up the left lead, the horse steps with their right hind foot first.  

Horse cantering in the field

How to recognize the canter

From the ground, the lead is recognizable because the strides on the lead side will be slightly longer than the strides on the offside. For example, if the horse is on the right lead, the right front and right hind legs will be taking longer strides than the legs on the left side. The lead is vital for helping the horse keep its balance in circles and turns. Additionally, you want the horse to canter with the lead on the inside of the circle or turn. 

Every once in a while a horse will cross-canter. Cross-canter is when the horse has one lead on the front and the opposite lead on the rear. So, the longer strides will be on diagonal-legs instead of on both legs at the same side, taking longer strides. For example, the left front leg and right rear leg will be making longer strides. Cross-cantering causes a twisting motion to the horse’s back and can be very uncomfortable for the rider.

Beautiful young blonde woman riding cantering chestnut horse

Determining the lead

From the mounted position, it takes some practice to recognize which lead the horse is on. There are two ways to determine the lead from this position.

Method 1

The first way requires the rider to sit tall and relaxed. An excellent way to practice this is to start at the walk. Without looking, the rider tries to determine which foot the horse is taking a step with. The rider has to pay close attention to the rhythm they feel as they sit on the horse. The rhythm can be done either in a saddle or bareback. Then moving up to the trot, the rider determines which diagonal the horse is on. At the canter, if the rider keeps a deep seat and rolls with the rhythm of the horse, he/she will feel a slightly stronger pull on one side compared to the other. This pull is caused by the longer stride the horse is making with the lead strides.  

Method 2

The second way to recognize the lead from the saddle requires a slight knowledge of horse anatomy. The lead legs are taking longer strides, but it is not advisable to lean over the horse to see which front foot is taking a longer step. Instead, remember this: a horse’s upper leg, a bone called the radius, is connected to another bone called the humerus. The humerus is attached to the scapula. When a horse’s leg is extended forward, the scapula rotates back.  The scapula is visible from a riding position. This rotation can be demonstrated by picking up a horse’s front leg and stretching it forward. This stretch will cause the scapula to rotate back, similar to what it does when the horse is in motion. When cantering the scapula on the lead side will rotate back slightly farther than the scapula on the offside.

Confident teenage girl cantering on the back of a brown colored horse with black main and tail at the beach under a cloudy sky

How to Train A Horse to Get the Correct Lead

Contrary to what some may believe, the rider should not kick as hard as they can with both legs to get the horse to canter. A properly trained horse will require only a slight nudge on one side to pick up the canter. Additionally, the rider should cue on the right side for the left lead. This nudge tells the horse to step with the right hind first, resulting in the left lead. For the right lead, the rider should cue with the left heel.  

Woman cantering purebred arabian horse in western pleasure

So how is a horse trained to respond to only this slight cue?

The horse needs to learn to move away from pressure. Learning to do a turn on the forehand will teach the horse how to move away from pressure on the rear quarters. A turn on the forehand is when the horse pivots in a very small circle with the front legs while the hind legs make a large circle. The rider turns the horse’s nose slightly in the opposite direction of the turn.

For a right-hand pivot, the horse’s nose is turned slightly to the left. A horse will follow its nose. By turning the nose in the opposite direction, the rider discourages the horse from walking off in a circle. Then the rider uses the left heel to push the horse to the right. This nudge is done just in front of the rear girth area. The rider needs to move his/her opposite leg away from the horse’s side. Moving the opposite leg away “opens the door” and gives the horse a place to move to.  If the horse walks out in a large circle, start over.

The rider should put slight pressure on the reins, telling the horse not to walk off, but instead only to move their hindquarters away from the pressure of the rider’s heel. Training the horse to master this maneuver will take some practice and persistence. Remember that “what is done to one side needs to be done on the other side.” So, it is important to practice in both directions.  Once the horse learns to move off of the pressure of the rider’s heal, it should be easier to teach them to pick up the correct leads.

People horse riding girl woman jockey fields forests cantering galloping equestrian

Consistency is key

The rider starts by working in a round pen or medium sized circles. The horse will want to naturally pick up the lead to the inside of the circle to keep its balance. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out that way. It takes persistence. If the horse picks up the wrong lead, the rider should immediately slow the horse and cue for the canter again. If the rider consistently cues for that lead, the horse will start being consistent with picking up the correct lead. Still, what happens on one side needs to happen on the other!

Do you have any tips on how to canter a horse properly that you’d like to share? Post them in the comments below! 

How Do You Properly Canter On A Horse-01-01

About the Author

Wendy Sumner (Researcher/Writer)

Wendy grew up on a quarter horse ranch in Wyoming.  She helped raise and train horses to be shown in the American Quarter Horse Association.  At college, she received her Equine Science degree and pursued her love of everything equine.  She has spent the last 35 years raising and training horses and teaching lessons.  We are excited that she has agreed to join our team as a researcher and writer. 

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