Canter - The First Step


Canter - The First Step

Preparing the Horse​

“The same reason that makes it difficult for the rider to ride correctly at the canter, makes it difficult for an unschooled horse to go correctly at this pace, and quite impossible for the rider, however good or expert he may be, to make him do so.” Wynmalen​

“It is a practiced rule by all the skilled masters that a horse must not be cantered until he has been suppled at the trot, so that he brings himself forward at the canter without leaning or pulling on the hand. It is thus necessary to wait until his whole body is supple, until he is rounded in the inside shoulder, is obedient to the heels at the passage with the croup to the wall, and has become light at the piaffe in the pillars. As soon as he has reached this degree of obedience, despite the little that one unsettles him in the canter, he will do it willingly.” Gueriniere​

While today few do this work between the pillars, there are still those that experience that there are some horses that just do best if the canter is left to very last of the training, often finding it is best to find and confirm the advanced movements of even passage and piaffe first before attempting the canter. This seems especially true of some baroque breeds such as the Lipizzaner.​

“And this is the reason why all schooling at the canter ought to be left to form the last part of the horse’s education. If we canter him too early we shall not be able to obtain an easy and nicely balanced pace, but be likely to create bad habits, such as plunging or head-throwing, which we might have great difficulty in correcting later on.​

"On the other hand, when a horse has first been carefully balanced, suppled, collected and made obedient to the legs, we shall be able to obtain a good canter, with balance and collection, almost at once. Our results will be quicker and infinitely better, and we shall have no difficulty in obtaining the speed and pace which we require and not be obliged to go at the speed and pace that may happen to suit the horse.” Wynmalen​

When you start an advanced horse in canter, what is the suggested way to start the horse in canter?​

“One must canter him in the posture of the shoulder-in, not only to make him free and obedient, but also to rid him of the bad habit (that almost all horses have) of cantering with the inside hind leg open and held apart from and outside of, the line of the inside front leg. As is easy to notice in most horses that canter, for example on the right lead (which is the way to canter hunters and hack horses), one will see that they have almost the entire left shoulder brought back and that they are tipped to the left. The reason for this is natural; while cantering with the right hind held open and apart from the left, the bone of the horse’s haunch, in this case, pushes and throws the rider to the outside and places him off balance. Thus to remedy this fault, it is necessary to canter the horse in the shoulder-in to teach him to bring the inside hind leg close to the outside leg, and to lower the haunches. Once he has become suppled and broken into this posture, it is easy for him to then canter with the haunches collected and on the line of the shoulders, so that the hind end chases the forehand, which is the true and nice canter.” Gueriniere​

This using shoulder-in to canter to help a horse to stop rushing has been employed by many masters finding it useful in helping the horse to place his inside hind leg underneath the center of balance of horse and rider. The horse that is engaged and underneath himself with his inside hind will be balanced and more likely collected, and it is this that prevents the rushing, spiralling madly around the arena. The rushing horse is one that tends to be on his forehand and unable to regain a quiet and controlled balance.​

Gueriniere brings up an important point of noticing the alignment of inside hind. An inside hind leg open and held apart is often a hind leg that has the stifle propped open with insufficient bend. The horse’s barrel is unable to settle nicely between the sling of the two stifles. This problem often can begin in other gaits and needs to be addressed there, not only in the canter transition. And often the quickest solution in achieving a stifle that is not propped open is to ensure that the horse is not being held or has learned to go on the vertical before the stifle has been properly activated and prepared for the load that it needs to learn how to bear.​

While there are those that find the first canter stride from the trot, many other masters suggest the correct way to obtain the canter from the very beginning is from the walk.​

“To obtain the canter I shall have no need to drive the horse through a trot and obtain the faster pace by loss of balance! Since his preparation has been right I will obtain the very first start at the canter in the proper manner from a collected walk.” Wynmalen​

The perceived benefit is that we have a horse that is not rushed or run into the canter from a faster and faster trot, with the horse literally falling onto his front end into canter. This loss of balance and rushing results in not only an awkward but an unsafe canter. Instead, the horse is asked for the canter from a lively walk and collecting the walk as he enter the corner of the arena. The practice of asking for canter from walk has a long history among equestrians. Indeed, the trot was often perceived as a gait that was difficult to ride especially before the advent of stirrups, many riders finding it was far easier to work the horse only in walk and canter in previous ages.​

Wynmalen suggests: “To strike off, with the off-fore leading [the right lead], the aids are: left or outside leg ‘closed’ behind the girth (with the right or inside leg ‘closed’ on the girth to press the horse forward and into his bridle) and a ‘feel’ on the right rein, a true diagonal aid once more. The rider’s right leg drives the near hind under for the take-off stride (first time in canter) and the feel on the right rein produces a flexion to the right.” Wynmalen, Equitation​

“Though these indications will suffice for the well-schooled horse, I will have to accentuate them to some extent in the beginning, in order to teach my horse the meaning of them. This accentuation I obtain by pulling my right rein in an upward direction, so as to raise the horse’s head and lighten his forehand, while I simultaneously carry both hands to the left, thus bringing the weight on the near fore and lightening the off-fore.​

"The horse placed in this position on entering the corner to the right is almost certain to strike off correctly at the first attempt; ....” Wynmalen​

Wynmalen continues to speak of the difference between the diagonal and lateral aids - an area of controversy amongst many masters through the ages. James Fillis, Baucher, Comte d’Aure, Wynmalen and Nuno Oliveira provide a rich illustration of the diverse variety of opinions on diagonal versus lateral aids for the canter.​

“Although no one, in equitation, would use any other than diagonal aids for the canter, I ought to acknowledge that a large number of riders and riding masters in England still continue to use lateral aids.​

These aids are called ‘lateral’ .D​

There always comes the point where we face introducing the first canter stride either to the human or to the horse.​

“The canter is the horse’s most complicated pace, and it is far more difficult to obtain correct results at this than at any other pace.” Wynmalen​

For many riders the change from the now comfortable trot to canter can be emotionally overwhelming. Many riders know that it may not make sense, but nonetheless quite naturally feel a certain amount of tension and even fear when faced with taking that very first canter stride. It somehow just does not feel the same to go from walk to trot as it does from walk to canter or trot to canter. The canter feels like the gallop and the natural fear of the runaway horse and a loss of control can quickly overcome us.​

“In order to ride well at the canter our aids must be adapted to and synchronised with the horse’s movements, and it follows therefore that we must begin by studying and understanding the mechanism of the pace, so that we shall know what is going on beneath us.” Wynmalen​

We can help prepare the rider with what to expect in canter, how to position their body, how the feel will change from moment to moment once they begin the actual canter sequence. It can of course help, if we first do this with the rider with an experienced horse, one who we can cue to the canter so that the rider can focus on themselves.​

“Another fault that most riders have is that, in the beginning, they do not apply themselves at all to feeling their canter, which is nevertheless essential.” Gueriniere​

This is where our abilities to help describe the canter, what to expect, the patterning of the rider’s body, can be so extremely helpful to help overcome the natural trepidation felt by the rider in the preparation for the first canter stride.​

Different masters through the ages have come up with different suggestions of what you can expect to feel in the canter. Most often the feeling is described as if one was sitting in a rocking chair.​

This has led some riders to bend forward with their torso from the hips as the horse raises up and back, worrying the onlooker as to whether a collision between the horse and the rider’s nose is about to happen, and then sitting back upright when the horse goes down. This has led other instructors to emphasize that the rocking motion instead is one of the rider sitting back and up, not forward and up.​

While this can work well sometimes, especially on a horse that springs well into canter and has some natural balance, it will not necessarily work well for all horses at all times through all levels of work and all levels of balance, although concentrating on bending almost exclusively from the hip joint can end up being inefficient and ineffectual.​


We can through observation see masters , whose body never appears to rock no matter the level of balance of the horse. It is especially noticeable.D​