Does your steady canter sometimes look more like a speed race around the arena? Or does your horse only manage one or two circles before you feel like he might fall over? Getting a canter that is more on the hocks and uphill is a matter of building strength and balance in your horse.
A beautiful, balanced canter makes life so much easier whether you’re schooling, jumping, or having a blast out on the trails. It’s definitely a prerequisite for moving up the levels in Dressage and working towards half-passes and flying changes. While some horses have much more natural balance than others (same as humans!), almost every horse can develop the canter until it is balanced and rideable.
Here are some exercises you can work on at home to get that rhythmical, uphill canter that we all dream of.
1. Trot-Canter-Trot Transitions
Why are transitions ALWAYS the answer to everything? Well, it’s simply because they teach your horse to be more on the aids, help to get the hind leg working and naturally start to shorten the horse and lift the forehand. Even the top riders spend loads of time working on transitions, so being disciplined about it will pay off in the long run.
The trot-canter-trot transitions should be ridden with only a few steps of canter. Aim for 5 or 6 strides before coming back to trot. Initially, your trot may need to be half a circle or even more in order to rebalance after the canter, but the eventual aim is to be able to pop into canter for a few strides, come back to trot for 2-3 strides, and canter immediately again. This helps to get the horse waiting for the transitions, stepping under himself in both gaits.
Key to this exercise is keeping the canter portion short enough that you improve the quality and balance and then transition smoothly to trot before it starts to get rushed or on the forehand.
2. Shoulder Fore in Canter
Shoulder fore is a useful exercise for any horse who tends to rush or fall on the forehand, as it encourages your horse to step underneath himself more actively, lift the shoulder, and engage the inside hind leg to make it take more weight. When ridden correctly, this is also a good straightening exercise which in itself will help to improve your horse’s balance.
To ride the shoulder fore in canter, first canter a circle of 10m-20m before coming up the long side. Ask for a slight inside flexion, weight your inside seatbone a little, and put your outside leg slightly behind the girth to guard the quarters as you ask the horse to move his shoulder off the wall while carrying on up the long side.
You’re not looking for an extreme angle here at all (as that would be shoulder in) but just want to bring the shoulder about ten degrees to the inside of the track without overbending the neck. Your shoulders should remain parallel to the horse’s shoulders. You may find this difficult at first, so be sure to get it right in walk and trot initially and be persistent.
3. Hill or Pole Work
You want to go more uphill – so why not use an actual hill to help you? If you have access to any slopes or hills that you can canter up, this is an excellent way to improve your horse’s strength and build up his hindquarters. Often, a lack of balance and a lack of strength are tied together and your horse simply needs to learn to carry himself. The angle of the hill will encourage your horse to push with his back legs rather than pull himself along with his front legs, and you’ll naturally find that he uses his back more easily.
If hill work isn’t an option, pole work is great. There are endless polework exercises you can choose from, and almost all of them will help, but you don’t necessarily need to do anything extravagant. Simply cantering over raised poles on a circle or straight line is great for getting the hind end to be more active and helping your horse to lift the topline. You can also set up poles for your horse to lunge over so that he can begin to find his balance without the help of the rider. Here are some good polework exercises you can try courtesy of international event rider Andrew Hoy.
4. Canter Loops
Riding canter loops is a good way to improve the balance and engagement of the canter, and can be started even on quite green horses. To ride a loop through X, you would, for example:
- Pick up canter on the right rein and go large.
- As you reach K, come off the track cantering towards X
- Ride a gentle curve oxer X before heading back to meet the wall at H
- Your horse keeps slightly flexed to the right this entire time and doesn’t change leads
This is a gentle introduction to counter canter, which is a wonderful balancing exercise for young horses. However, it can be hard to get a full loop on a horse who has a big or wobbly canter, so you don’t need to start off your loops by riding to X. You can easily ride a shallow loop which only reaches the quarter line, and gradually build on this until you can get to X without disturbing the rhythm of the canter.
Be sure to remain strong and stable in your seat as you ride the loop, and don’t tip forward as you reach X (when the balance is usually at its worst!). One tip to help ride this is to steady and half halt on the approach to X and very slightly accelerate out of the curve back to the wall.
An unbalanced canter can be really hard to ride at first, but by chipping away at it and making sure that you are remaining as balanced and strong in your body as possible, you will make plenty of improvements!
Do you have any other great balancing exercises that we’ve missed? Let us know!
Featured Image by by Elisa Pitkänen.