CANTERING FOR INCREASED LATERAL AND LONGITUDINAL FLEXIBILITY
By Betty Lindquist
Riders and trainers traditionally use circling, bending and lateral exercises in the walk and trot for increasing their horse's lateral flexibility; and they utilize lengthening and shortening the horse's walk and trot for developing longitudinal flexibility - few think of the canter as a gait for developing this same kind of flexibility. [In this article I will use the term "canter" to refer to both the English canter and the western lope. The lope, when done correctly, is the same gait as the canter (the same foot fall patterns), but it is slower and less ground covering.]
Utilizing the canter in a horse's training is a simple but very effective way of improving both a horse's lateral flexibility as well as its front to back (longitudinal) flexibility. I would like to describe how this happens.
First, let me describe the mechanics of the canter. In this gait the horse first uses its outside hind leg to push its body forward. In the next step it will support its body by putting the diagonal pair of legs (inside hind/outside fore) down together and, finally, it will stretch out and land on its inside foreleg (the leading leg). In explaining the mechanics of the canter to a student I will often describe it as a horse vaulting from its outside hind leg to its inside foreleg, and in the middle of that vault it puts its "training wheels", the inside hind/outside fore, down for support.
The mechanics of the canter that I've just described provides a diagonal stretch through the horse's body that the walk and trot cannot give. This stretch starts from the outside hind leg and goes diagonally through the horse's body to the inside fore (the leading leg). When the canter is done in both directions (both leads) it gives a complete stretch to a horse's body that prepares it for better bending and lateral work.
The canter is primarily described as a 3-beat gait, but there is a 4th beat - the moment of suspension. In this moment of suspension the horse's body is lifted into the air and has all four feet off the ground. This, combined with the pattern of the foot falls, produces an undulation through the horse's body from the rear to the front that improves longitudinal flexibility. This combination of diagonal stretch and body undulation in this one gait can improve suppleness in the body both laterally and longitudinally.
Now that I have touted the benefits of the canter, I must tell you that using the canter for increased flexibility has to be done in a specific way in order to be its most effective. Done incorrectly it can actually increase stiffness. Below are my thoughts on how this should be done.
First, and foremost, this cantering should not be done under saddle, but rather in a round pen or on a longe line.
The kind of canter work that I'm describing is appropriate for horses of all ages, but is especially true for young or green horses in their early stages of training. These young or green horses will be working to develop and maintain their balance in this gait and a rider would interfere with the undulations and diagonal stretch of the horse's body at this early stage. While the work at the walk and trot can proceed under saddle, work at the canter in a round pen or on a longe line would enable these horses to benefit from the stretch that the canter offers.
Second, this cantering should be done without tack or training devices. These things will also interfere with the body's undulations and stretch, and rather than increasing flexibility, will inhibit it. We want the horse to be able to use its body in its most natural, comfortable way, not hampered by the extra interference of a saddle or training devices that try to shape the horse's movement to conform to what riders and trainers want to see.
To sum up, to get the benefits of the canter in developing flexibility, it should be done in a round pen or on a longe line without rider, tack or training devices. The horse should be encouraged to go freely forward. This free forward cantering is especially effective in loosening and stretching the loin muscles. This is important because tightness in the loin muscles can stiffen a horse's entire body. For the best results the horse should have its direction changed a number of times.
It isn't just the young or green horse that can benefit from cantering without a rider, saddle or training devices. So, what other horses could benefit from this kind of cantering? My list would include poorly balanced horses of any age, older horses, competition horses, horses that are not normally cantered under saddle, sluggish horses or high energy horses and horses that spend long periods of time in stalls.
Poorly balanced horses could be that way because of their innate conformation - downhill horses will always have problems with their balance in the canter, but a poorly balanced horse could be that way because of poor riding or ill fitting equipment. Regardless of why they have balance problems, cantering free will help them.
Older horses can benefit greatly from a free, forward canter. One rider, longeing her 35 year old horse, commented that the horse was stiff in its walk and trot, but seemed to come alive in the canter, moving with greater ease and comfort, and enjoying the movement. Cantering on a longe line is an integral part of my own 29 year old horse's work sessions.
Competition horses work under a lot of pressure and the canter used in the way I've described can refresh the body and the gaits after intense work sessions in collection. Some riders don't want to do this because they say they are afraid of loosing the collection. This type of comment is an indication that the horse has not been trained in collection correctly, but is being held together by the force of the rider's aids without self-carriage.
All horses have the physical ability to canter, but some types are not usually asked or allowed to canter in their work. Some gaited horses and some of the driving horses are in this category, but, again, cantering in a round pen or on a longe line can reduce much of the stiffness that develops when horses only walk and trot.
Sluggish horses can be encouraged to develop forward motion by cantering freely forward without encumbrances and, at the other end of the spectrum, high energy horses can be given the opportunity to work off some of their energy by cantering without a rider.
Horses that spend a lot of time in their stalls can benefit greatly from cantering in the way I've described.
There are many riders and trainers that use the canter in the way I've described, but perhaps without fully understanding the benefits they are getting. They may not realize that as the horse canters it is releasing tension in its muscles, increasing its flexibility and making its work sessions easier and more productive. It is my hope that this article will increase their understanding of what happens in the canter and how it increases their effectiveness in the training and riding. And I hope that riders and trainers that have not utilized the canter fully in their horse's training will try it.
Betty Lindquist has been involved with horses for 40 years - riding, training and teaching. She is a licensed massage therapist for humans and specializes in biomechanics and correct movement. She trained in Sally Swift's Centered Riding techniques. She is available for clinics and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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