How to improve horse's back in canter
Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Thursday, January 15, 2009 09:37 AM
This blog is inspired by the question of one of my readers. And to answer it fully I would like to point out that horses even without the rider can canter very differently. Experts that help people choose a horse to buy point out that quality of the canter is very important in a horse. You can improve the trot but canter can be improved only so much. And one of the aspects that is hard to improve is how a horse uses his back. Watching your horse cantering at liberty or on the lunge line you can evaluate the way he canters. He must be relaxed mentally to canter in a usual way. There are two extremes and most of the horses fall somewhere in between. One is cantering like a deer, flat and hard back bouncing off the ground with stiff legs and high head. Another is cantering like a panther, back rounding at the end of the third bit and the horse tucks his pelvis and brings his hind legs well under himself during suspension phase and lands with front end well lifted off the ground, he likes to arch his neck during canter and changes direction or speed by sitting behind and moving front end around which gives feel of balance and control. Horses do not have great suppleness in their backs, they do not move in gallop like cats or dogs do. However, there is small oscillation that is visible.
If the horse is young and haven't been worked under saddle for long his canter at liberty will show his natural tendencies. On the other hand, horse that has been under saddle for several years may have back problems and will canter flatter and with more stiffness than his natural abilities. I have seen school horses with swayed backs that are so stiff it was painful to watch them canter at liberty. The best way to evaluate your horse's back is to do a video recording of it. Than you can watch it frame by frame and analyze different phases of canter stride. If you want to evaluate your horse's back in canter through pictures you must have a picture for every phase of the canter. Because horse's back moves there are moments when it looks round and other moments when it looks rather slightly hollow. The best moment to catch would be a moment just before taking off at the end of the third bit and the worst phase would be the second bit of the canter just before third. If you have pictures of both moments and there is visible difference in the way back looks the horse is using his back and working well. If the back looks slightly hollow in both phases the horse is not using his back.
There are two ways to improve horse's back in canter. First is to use outside influences such as slopes and snow and second one is using your seat in such a way that it allows and actually draws horse's back up.
Outside factors
This one is great for young, green or incorrectly trained horses and once in while for any horse as a refreshment from regular routine. You ride in a light seat to allow your horse to use his back at his own discretion and you put him in the environment where he has to use his back. Gentle slopes, especially uphill. Moderate to heavy snow is absolutely great tool. Just make sure footing under snow is even (no holes) and clear from any obstacles. Allow your horse to use his head and neck and ride forward. You want your horse to jump out of the snow not pull himself out of it. If you do not have snow tall grass or shallow water are great substitutes. Jumping a series of small cavalletty set up at about 10-11 feet distance from each other is a great way to release horse's back. If you do not feel very confident about riding cavalletty you can lunge your horse over them or free jump. Galloping across country side with slopes and different footing teaches your horse to use himself better.
Rider's seat
The rider's seat has a great influence on how a horse will use himself. The biggest mistake riders do is allowing the momentum of canter stride to push them too much forward with their seat. Some riders actually encourage this movement and actively push their hips and seat forward slamming their horse into the withers area. The horse with such rider will have very hollow back during the last moments of the second bit of the canter stride and will have a hard time recovering to lift his withers during first beat. However, riders who honestly try not to push with their seat very often find themselves pushed forward by the canter itself. The canter is a rolling gait. A horse rolls from outside hind leg to inside front one. And there is a moment during canter stride when front legs are landing and hind legs are pushing off. This is the moment of great importance. Rider feels it like something starts pushing him forward. Depending on a horse it can be forward and downward, forward and upward. Or it can feel like a kick in a butt with horses who like to canter with high croup. If a rider is very passive during this moment he will be thrown forward with his/her seat. If a rider tries to stop the slide by grabbing with the knees and squeezing with the thighs he/she creates stiffness in the hips and the seat will fly out of the saddle. The trick is to keep your hips very supple, your thighs rotated inward and pressed slightly down, sort of glued to the saddle. If you hear your thighs flopping against the saddle during canter you will not be able to influence your horse correctly.
  • The moment when you have most weight on your seat base (seatbones and pubic bone) is during landing of hind legs.
  • When energy of the canter starts to move you forward you want to go rather up by opening the hip joints and being very stable and vertical through your torso and supple in the back (supple means strong and flexible not relaxed). Your seat will unload the saddle without detaching from it and you will feel more weight in your thighs than your seat. The unloading of your seat is very important moment, it allows and actually draws your horse's back upward. There is still going to be a forward momentum. However, you will not move forward more than the saddle.
  • When the horse is coming on his front inside leg you stop the forward momentum of your body with your thighs, strong core and back muscles and actually send your torso backwards by continuing using your thighs (torso stays more or less vertical throughout the stride). Do not panic thinking "how do I catch that moment, everything happening so fast". If you were able to stabilize your body and send it rather up than forward you will feel the energy of forward momentum slowing and then reversing. That is happening because the horse is lifting forehand up and lowering the haunches down at the end of the third bit and during suspension phase. You catch that moment and emphasize it. This is how you collect your horse. In truly collected canter horse is not loading down during third bit of the canter but coming up with his front end.
  • Slowing and reversing the forward momentum requires a great deal of control from your thighs muscles, all of them. You can do it if you have a very stable lower leg. Then you can use muscles of your thighs quite strongly if needed without jeopardizing your leg's position.
Make sure your horse is forward. If you succeed in creating a seat that draws his back up he may lose his canter because it will bring his hind legs under him and he will be required to push more. If he is used to simply fall down on his forehand it will be a big change to him. With the correct seat you will not need to half-halt your horse at every stride. You may need the half-halt once in a while if your horse dives down by habit or you loose him but then he will come back to your seat and you can simply stay soft with your hands and connected to him allowing him to oscillate with his head. You can drop contact for a few strides to check if you are truly keeping him on your seat. Yes, collected horse does not really oscillate with his head, however, it is a consequence of true collection. If you think by holding his head and not allowing oscillation you create more collected canter this is a mistake. He will drop his back and press his neck into the withers retracting from the bit. In collected canter the movement of the seat is very compact and emphasis is on bringing the seat back. In extended canter you ask for more energy and when the push of hind legs reaches your seat you allow your seat to go forward, there will be more amplitude in your seat. However, you still keep things under control. It requires more strength in your body. Do not extend so much that you will loose it. It takes practice to develop such seat. I'm sure even the best riders are still working on perfecting it.
This is probably most difficult blog I have written so far. I tried to be as clear as I can. I welcome comments and questions so we can sort things out and find even better explanation. In the next blog I will give exercises for the rider and the horse to help develop the canter.
Happy riding...
Comment by Shannon Ardell on Friday, January 16, 2009 06:36 PM
Irina, You never cease to impress me! Thanks so much. I look forward to working with you on this in February.
Comment by redballoon on Saturday, February 7, 2009 04:17 AM
I just found this site after doing a search for "moving hip joints at canter." Wow, this is so what I've been looking for, such detail. Thank you!
Comment by Pam Swing on Wednesday, September 30, 2009 05:01 PM
When i ride the inside hind toward the middle of the two front legs-ie shoulder fore and also ride the outside shoulder in a little-modified shoulder in the canter is so much smoother and easier to work on improving my seat. In other words its very tough to improve your canter seat when the canter itself is rough. I suggest getting a great depart this way and half halting as much as you need to and then transition to trot before the canter becomes rough. keep going -even 5 strides of great canter is better than 30 rough ones.
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