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How Many Canters?

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The canter is a three-beat, broken diagonal gait - outside hind, inside hind/outside fore, inside fore. We all know that. So what are all of those other faster-than-trot, slower-than-run variations we riders are subject to from time to time?

Individual differences in equine carriage and conformation can account for a certain degree of variance in the canter. Training, also, can dramatically influence the execution and texture of the cantering gait. And let's not forget all of those constantly changing variables such as riding environment, riding surface, rider's physical state, and horse's mental state.

Surely one or more of these excuses ... er ... justifications ... er ... explanations can be credited with each of the canter dissimilarities to which I have been treated in the past. I write not of the valid derivations of the true canter gait. Extensions and collections, lead changes and counter canters, and canter pirouettes by design are a joy to behold and a thrill to ride (or so I am told). No, I am not writing of the perfect execution of finely honed equine and equestrian skills. I refer here to that intriguing, if not somewhat disconcerting, canter consisting of nothing less than a series of spasmodic, peg legged, one-tempe lead changes delivered by an emotional wreck of a quivering quarter horse. An interesting derivation is the I-know-I'm-not-supposed-to-buck-but-I'm-too-neurotic-to-move-forward canter in place.

Then there was the show ring canter which elicited the comment laughingly rendered by my railside riding instructor as I blurred past atop a steaming locomotive of a saddlebred, "Why don't you pick up the pace a little?" Very funny. So maybe I was just a wee bit tense in that class.

And what is that phenomenal canter of the "Big Lick" Tennessee Walking Horse? Though undeniably artificial in virtually every respect, I cannot help but be awestricken by the flamboyant panache of a gait which rivals the airborne majesty of Pegasus himself.

If you're looking for a smooth ride, lope the stock horse. Here is an animal who can defy the physics of movement by remaining at all times so close to the ground that movement is nearly undiscernible from atop. But beware the unfortunate flip side: if you're looking for a jostling ride, lope the stock horse. At its worst, the canter can be slowed to an unrecognizable and thoroughly unpleasant gait. Regrettably, improper training has made this aberration a little too commonplace in western arenas.

Cantering uphill demands the energetic engagement of a horse's hindquarters. Thoroughly enjoyable is the feeling of the powerful impulsion provided in the uphill effort - an effort which unfailingly softens even the roughest ride. Turn and travel downhill, however, and you will quickly long for level ground. Even the slightest down-grade will turn the silkiest canter stride into a jarring, jabbing jackhammer of a jaunt.

The winner of the bone-crunching, spine-wrenching, trunk-twisting canter award, however, must be reserved for those equine individuals who stalwartly refuse to change a canter lead with more than half of their bodies at a time - the cross canter. Whose bright idea was this charming little canter deviation, anyway? My imagination consistently likens it to riding the agitator of a heavy-duty washing machine during the spin cycle. And I can assure you, it does not get any smoother with speed.

Speed is the common ally of green horses and the common enemy of trainers. Surely you've noticed how slowly that horse you're training will canter in fairly small circles out in the middle of your field. So why does he race around like a madman in your arena? Young or uncoordinated older animals will frequently combat the unnerving closeness and frightening imbalance of carrying themselves at canter in an restricted area by employing the centrifugal forces associated with excessive speed around corners. In short, they run so that they won't fall over. Gosh, it's hard to stay centered in a saddle that's all but sideways.

These same naive mounts seem as often as not to lose track of one or more of their legs, resulting in a somewhat less than perfectly rhythmic canter stride. Was that outside hind/inside hind, outside fore/inside fore (no, that's a rabbit); or was it inside fore, outside hind/outside fore, inside hind (no, that doesn't seem right, either)? No matter. Just keep moving.

The specifics of this particular gait become even less readily understood with the introduction of the sister stride, gallop, into the fray. Let's see now. In terms of overall pace (not accounting for collections and extensions), the canter reduced to its lowest common denominator equals the lope, then accelerates to canter, and finally to hand gallop. So why is it that so many hunt seat riders refer to "galloping" their fences, when in fact to watch many of them ride, the gait actually employed is often little more than canter, and rarely more than hand gallop? The problem lies in the fact that half of the equestrian texts refer to the canter and gallop as one in the same gait. The other half of the texts differentiate between the two, identifying the gallop as a distinctly separate, four-beat gait. Then of course, there is that mystical hand gallop thing. Faster ... longer ... three-beat ... four-beat ...? Who knows?

So how many canters are there? Only one ... it's a three-beat, broken diagonal gait - outside hind, inside hind/outside fore, inside fore. We all know that.

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