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Want to Canter Your Horse? A Guide for Beginner Riders

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I recently help my niece through the horse canter for the first time. It was tricky, but after some trials and errors, she caught on and advanced smoothly. This experience made me realize the importance of establishing a good riding foundation before your first canter.

Canter is a horse gait (a pattern of movement) that involves three beats. All horses naturally canter, though they may learn different variations of it. It’s usually faster than a trot but slower than a gallop, with an average speed of 10-15 mph (17 – 26 km/h).

It’s time to saddle up your horse and canter; it’s one of the most enjoyable things about riding a horse. It’s also good for you because it helps build muscle and improve balance. If you want to learn more about riding a horse in a canter, keep reading!

Picture of a horse traveling in a canter.

What is cantering?

The canter is a three-beat gait horses naturally perform. It’s is usually faster than a trot but slower than a gallop. Different variations of the canter are common in dressage and show jumping.

Riding a horse in a canter can be difficult at first; it requires balance and control. You should be able to tell when it begins and recognize when it’s not performed correctly.

Before we get into the details, it’s important to be aware of some common terms related to horse-riding:

  • Lead: During certain gaits, the legs on one side reach forward farther than the opposite side. The forward reaching leg is the on the lead side. If the left fore and hind legs land forward, the horse is on a “left lead.”
  • X-beat gait: When a gait is said to be an X-beat gait, it means that there will be “X” numbers of audible beats of the legs hitting the ground every stride. For example, two legs land independently in the canter, and the other two land simultaneously (3-beat gait).
  • Inside/Outside: In an arena, the “outside” (outside leg, shoulder, rein, etc.) refers to the direction towards the outside of the circle, while the “inside” refers to the inner region. If a horse is riding in a straight line in an open area, any side can be taken as the inside/outside.

However, if the horse moves sideways in an open arena, the side it’s turning towards is said to be the “inside.”

  • Suspension phase: It’s the phase of any gait during which all of the horse’s limbs are off the ground.

In a canter, a stride starts with either of the hind legs (called the outside leg) hitting the ground (first beat). Then, the inside back leg and outside foreleg land simultaneously (second beat). Next, the outside hind leg lifts off, and the inside front leg lands (third beat).

Then the inside hind leg and outside foreleg take off together, and the horse is supported only by the inside front leg. When the inside front leg lifts off, all four legs are in the air, and the horse is in the suspension phase. The next stride starts when the outside hind leg lands on the ground.

The concept of “lead” is central to the canter and gallop. Learning to switch your horse’s lead for specific circumstances is crucial, though the “correct” lead is often a personal riding choice.

A horse is on a left lead if the left hind leg lands forward farther than the right back leg (during the second beat) and the left foreleg lands farther than the right foreleg (during the third beat).

Another way to recognize the lead is by determining which foreleg lands on the third beat.

Riders have to choose the correct lead when moving in a circle to establish balance (i.e., they lead in the direction they are turning). Taking the correct lead is also important when jumping over fences and landing on the ground.

Counter-cantering is when a horse along a curved part is on a lead opposite to the direction it is moving in. Riders may use it for improving responsiveness or when training a horse for racing.

Some riding competitions like polo and upper-level dressage also require riders to counter-canter. It displays the rider’s control over balance and their ability to take sudden, sharp turns.

What are the different canter variations?

The canter can be roughly divided into five types based on the frame, stride length, and thrust power. Riders often need to work on different canter variations when preparing horses for dressage.

  1. The working canter is the natural canter of every horse that has a balanced, rhythmic pace.
  2. The collected canter is when the hindquarters are thoroughly engaged, and the forehand is supple and flexible. It is marked by a more significant weight on the hind legs, a shorter frame, and a smaller but springier stride.
  3. In the medium canter, the stride and frame of the horse moderately lengthen. It involves significant impulsion and covers more ground than the working canter.
  4. The extended canter is when the horse covers maximum ground per stride and has a fully stretched frame. It involves the longest phase of suspension (close to a gallop) while retaining the rhythm and lightness of the working canter.
  5. The lope is a relaxed, western version of the canter that is similar to a collected canter. However, the hindquarters are not as engaged, and the speed may be slower.

What is the speed of the canter?

The canter has a speed of 17 – 26 km/h (10 – 15 mph). Some canters have a relaxed pace and are generally slow, while others are almost a gallop. The lope, for example, doesn’t typically exceed 20 km/h (12 mph).

A fast cantering horse takes bigger strides with increased speed, and the suspension phase between the three distinct beats gets longer.

Cantering vs. trotting

When I imagine trotting, I think of any movie scene where a horse is shown “running wildly.” That’s because it’s difficult to canter a horse for a long while, so filmmakers usually have the horse trot instead.

A trot is a diagonal two-beat gait. Its speed can vary largely but averages from 8 – 12 mph (13 – 19 km/h). It’s simpler and more stable than the canter and is one of the first gaits that a beginner horse rider learns.

Generally, a horse cantering is much smoother to ride than one trotting because the rider bounces up and down on the saddle when trotting as the horse’s diagonal legs hit and lift off the ground alternatively.

Because of the roughness of a trot, it can take some getting used to, and riders have to “sit” the trot, meaning that the rider stays down on the saddle. The lower back and stomach also have to adopt a moving rhythm to compensate for the horse’s up and down and horizontal bounce (this technique is called “posting”).

Compared to the canter or the gallop, horses can sustain a trot for a very long period without tiring. It also doesn’t require too much attention on the rider’s part, like using multiple aids or training the horse to use its neck for balance.

Like the canter, the trot is a natural gait and has many variations. It also plays a significant part in Western and English dressage competitions.

Cantering vs. galloping

The gallop is a four-beat gait having a speed of 25 – 30 mph (40 – 48 km/h). Like the canter, it’s a smooth gait and requires a skillful rider. It also has a very similar sequence of footfalls.

In a cantor, the second beat is caused by the inside hind leg and outside foreleg landing together. However, the inside hind leg lands before the outside foreleg in a gallop, while the following foot movement is the same as the canter.

Galloping horses create four distinct beats per stride. A horse rider can transition into a gallop by simply making a horse in an extended canter increase its stride length.

Fun fact: the fastest horse ever had a galloping speed of almost 55 mph (88.5 km/h), but he could only achieve it for a short moment during a quarter-mile sprint.

Picture of a rider cantering their horse.

How to canter a horse Western style (lope)

The Western version of the canter (lope) is as natural for horses as the English canter. However, it’s more focused on keeping your body relaxed, maintaining contact with the seat, and moving with the horse.

Start with a simple trot for a few beats. You should sit deep in the saddle without leaning forward or tensing your lower back. Maintain gentle control over the reins and refrain from pulling too much.

For your cue, make sure to choose a turn where the following ground has plenty of space for cantering.

For an inside lead, keep your inside leg on the girth and move your outside leg behind the girth. Next, apply pressure with your lower outside leg, slightly lift the inside reins and squeeze your inside calf.

These are all aids for cantering that the horse will soon have memorized. You can also use verbal cues like “canter” or clucking or kissing sounds.

Allow the reins to follow the motion of your horse’s head. Remember to avoid pressing the stirrups while keeping firm contact. Your center of gravity should be on the horse’s back. Your hips should be loose and move freely with the rocking motion.

To slow the horse, squeeze with your legs and slightly pull back on the reins until you notice a pause.

In Western riding, the canter feels relaxed, and the horse keeps its head low. To improve your canter, keep working on the transition and practice leading on both sides.   

FAQs

How long can a horse walk, trot, canter, and gallop?

In a single day, without stopping, an average horse can trot for 20 to 30 miles, canter up to five miles, and gallop for 1.5 to 2 miles before fatigue kicks in.

Can a trot be faster than a gallop?

Horses in harness racing can trot up to 49 km/h (30 mph), which is much faster than many horses can gallop.

What is an ambling gait? Is it faster than a canter?

Ambling gaits are inherited four-beat gaits faster and smoother than walking. They are typically slower than cantering and don’t tire the horse as much. Horses that can perform ambling gait are known as gaited. I wrote an article on the best-gaited breeds that you can read here.