The Horse Physio - Delivering care with expertise since 1992

13.11.22021 Does your horse canter normally?

A Guest Blog By Sue Dyson

A normal pain-free horse should be able to establish and maintain canter on the left and right reins with equal ease. As a rider you should feel that your pelvis is rocked backwards and forwards while the horse is in canter. The horse should feel powerful, pushing well from behind, so that a true three-beat gait is maintained, with a period of suspension. Canter is initiated by the outside trailing hindlimb, which transiently bears weight alone. This is followed by the inside leading hindlimb and the outside trailing forelimb hitting the ground almost simultaneously, followed by the leading forelimb, and then push off into a period of suspension with all four limbs off the ground. The horse should sound as though it lands lightly.

The horse’s back should not feel hard, so there should not be a jarring sensation through your back. The horse should move straight and willingly and should maintain a regular three-beat rhythm and speed, without undue tension or anxiety. The horse should feel similar if the rider is sitting in the saddle (three-point position) versus ‘sitting light’, standing in the stirrups, in a two-point position. It is not normal for a horse to break to trot repeatedly, or to become disunited (cross-canter). The horse should maintain the same outline or frame in canter as in trot, and when performing a downwards transition from canter to trot it should do so smoothly, with the hindlimbs stepping under the trunk to propel the horse forwards in trot.

Some horses need to develop adequate musculoskeletal strength and coordination to canter correctly with the weight of a rider, and this is often better achieved by cantering in straight lines out in the open rather than within the confines of an arena. Repeated lengthening and shortening of the step length, while maintaining the ‘jump’ in the canter develops the quality of the canter. Alternating between the two- and three-point positions can be beneficial. The use of poles on the ground may also be helpful. When viewed from behind a horse which is appropriately balanced should move on two tracks (each hindlimb follows the track of the forelimb on the same side) and the cantle of the saddle should remain fully in view. If the cantle of the saddle disappears this means that the horse is on the forehand and croup high.

With hindlimb discomfort a horse may reduce the spatial and temporal separation of the two hindlimbs, so that load is shared by both hindlimbs for a longer period. When extreme this is manifest as so-called ‘bunny hopping’. The horse may have inadequate push-off so that there is never a period in the stride cycle when all four limbs are off the ground. This creates a so-called four-beat canter. A horse may also place the leading hindlimb to the ground before the trailing forelimb, so that this diagonal pair of limbs do not hit the ground together. The horse may become crooked, break spontaneously, or become disunited. With forelimb pain the horse may appear ‘earthbound’, taking short forelimb steps, with reduced clearance of the feet from the ground. Paradoxically the horse may audibly land more heavily.

As a rider you may feel that your pelvis is being rotated in a circular motion in canter (I call it the washing machine canter), and that there is a jarring impact being projected through your back. A horse with hindlimb discomfort may adapt by becoming croup high, on the forehand, and when sitting in canter you may feel that your upper body is moving backwards and to an upright position to adapt to the horse’s movement. The saddle may slip to one side, so that you finish up sitting crookedly. The tail carriage may become crooked. When performing a downwards transition from canter to trot the horse may stiffen the back and take short, sometimes irregular steps behind. Some horses do small humping bucks or may perform so-called fly bucks, kicking out with one or both hindlimbs.

If a poor quality canter is the result of inadequate training, this should improve rapidly, within four to six weeks, with appropriate training. If it does not, then this means that there is likely to be an underlying problem with the horse, the tack or the rider. Professional advice should be sought.

© Sue Palmer, The Horse Physio, 2021

Treating your horse with care, connection, curiosity and compassion

November 13, 2021
Sue Palmer