This is the fourth blog in my series on Collective Marks, this one concentrating on the canter.  As I have stated in all three of the previous posts, the importance of how you understand and focus on the collective marks cannot be emphasised enough.  If you pay lip service to this you will not have a full appreciation of the aims of your test.

The collective marks allow the judge to give an overall score for their perception of how you and your horse performed throughout the test.  It is their opinion as to how you, as a combination, conducted yourselves and the overall impression you left them with as the test progressed.

The first post in this series – Collective marks – Scoring, explained the way the collectives are scored by the judges.  Moving on, I turn to paces, regularity and freedom, the first of the collectives to be given marks.  Your score will be either an individual score for each of the 3 paces (walk, trot and canter) or an overall score for all of them, depending on your training level.

The Canter

The canter is a three beat pace, where in the canter to the right, for example, the footfall is as follows:  left hind, left diagonal (simultaneously left for and right hind, right fore, followed by a moment of suspension with all four feet I the air before the next stride begins.  The canter, always with light, cadenced and regular strides, should be moved into without hesitation.

The quality of the canter is judged by the overall impression that you give the judge.  So the judge might comment something like ‘pleasing canter’ which means that the overall impression that you give is good.

They are looking for:

  • regularity and lightness of the steps
  • the uphill tendency
  • acceptance of the bit
  • a supple poll
  • engagement of the hindquarters
  • the ability to maintaining rhythm and balance

All of the above needs to be maintained throughout the transition.  Finally, give much thought to straightness.  Your horse should always remain straight on straight lines and correctly bent on curved lines.

As ever, the most important element of the canter are the transitions into, out of and from one canter to another. There are two earlier posts that will help you with your transitions … UP, UP AND AWAY – CANTER DEPART and CANTER DEPART – STRIKE A LEG.

The following canters are recognised:

  • Working Canter
  • Lengthening of strides
  • Collected Canter
  • Medium Canter
  • Extended Canter
  • Counter Canter
  • Simple change of leg at the Canter
  • Flying change of leg

Working Canter

The rules state: “good hock action” underlines the importance of an impulsion originating from the activity of the hindquarters. This is the natural pace dictated by the horse and is between collected and medium canter. .

Lengthening of strides

The rules state: A variation between working and medium canter. Required in the test for four year old horses, the lengthened canter should result in a longer frame and large stride.

Collected Canter 

The rules state: The horse’s strides are shorter than in the other canters, without losing elasticity and cadence. The hocks should be well engaged, maintaining an energetic impulsion, enabling the shoulders to move with good mobility thus demonstrating self carriage and an uphill tendency.

HOW TO: To shorten the horse’s stride you need to sit taller and lengthen your spine. With multiple half-halts in rhythm with the horse’s strides you will engage the hindquarters. Do not hold the aids or hang onto the horse’s mouth when shortening. Insufficient leg will allow the horse onto the forehand or to break into the trot or walk.

Medium Canter 

The rules state: Strides should be balanced and unconstrained.  Very forward with moderate extension.  Without hurrying the horse shows clearly lengthened strides and impulsion from the hindquarters.  The rider should allow the horse to carry the head a little more in front of the vertical than in the collected and working canter and at the same time allow the horse to lower the head and neck slightly.

HOW TO: To lengthen the canter, the rider uses his or her legs against the horse’s sides in rhythm with the gait. The leg aids should be applied as the hind legs are engaging.  Additionally, the rider should engage the seat at the same time as the leg aids are used, with the canter motion. Contact may be lightened, but should not be dropped. The rider should never lean forward.

Extended Canter 

The rules state: The horse covers as much ground as possible.  Without hurrying the strides are lengthened to the utmost.  The important thing is to maintain the 3-beat gait.  The horse should remain calm, light and straight as a result of the created impulsion from behind.  The rider allows the horse to lengthen the frame with a controlled poll and to gain ground.  The whole movement should be well balanced and THE DOWNWARD TRANSITION should be smoothly executed by taking more weight on the hindquarters. .


The most important function of the correct lead is for balance. While they are unimportant on a straight line, they greatly influence the athletic ability of a horse on turns, especially if the turn is tight or performed at speed. Horses naturally lean in to the direction they are turning. Since they extend their lead-side legs further out, they may use them to balance themselves as they lean into that direction. So, if on the right lead while taking a right turn, the right hind will be positioned more under the body, and the right foreleg more in front of the body, to act as a stabilizer as the horse turns.

When on the incorrect lead, the horse is usually left unbalanced. In this case, correct riding can make the difference in the horse’s performance. Good riding can keep the legs positioned correctly enough so that the horse is still able to perform the turn. Poor riding will hinder rather than help the horse, and in extreme situations such as a tight turn at speed, the horse may lose its legs footing and fall.


The rules state: must be executed in collection.  In essence, the rider asks for the ‘wrong’ lead. This is a movement asked for in dressage tests. It is also a general schooling movement, as the horse must stay very balanced to keep a nice canter while on the opposite lead, and is an important step to teaching the horse the change of lead.

HOW TO: Counter canter is a pace, not a movement.  Before attempting counter canter your horse should be working happily into an even contact on both reins at walk, trot and canter.  Additionally, you and your horse should be comfortable with making transitions within the paces – lengthening and shortening of the stride without losing balance.

Furthermore, before you begin the counter canter, ask the horse for canter on both reins from the centre line, making sure you establish your aids for each rein clearly.

collective marks

Get a real ‘punchy’ canter and execute a 5m loop along on the long side of the ménage.  Maintain the canter aids to stop the horse breaking into trot or changing leads.  A common mistake is to ask for too much neck bend.  Only do this a couple of times and then leave it until next time.

Or, if you have difficulty simply ask for canter on the long side ‘on the wrong leg’.  Stay calm, relax and ride forward.  Success will depend on confidence.

Simple change of leg at canter 

The rules state: After a direct transition out of canter to walk, three to five clearly defined steps and an immediate transition is made into the other canter lead.  The horse changes lead through the trot or, more correctly, through the walk. When changing through the walk, the horse should not break into the trot. Simple changes are a preparatory step before teaching the horse flying changes.

HOW TO: Break it down into separate parts; the canter to walk, the walk and the walk to canter.  You should think ‘canter – walk – walk – canter’.  In the canter to walk the horse needs to sit back on his hocks to slow down, ride forward (never pull back).

As with all transitions, you need to keep yourself and the horse straight, but it is a really important element to the simple change.  Practice the canter to walk on the long side and check for straightness.  Focus on holding your position.  When the horse steps forward into the walk, relax your fingers, be patient and practice.  From the walk to back into canter through trot, work on the walk to canter can be done separately.

Practice each element and each transition separately, before you put it all together.  Take a look at … Improving the Canter to Walk Transition for more information.  In time the walk disappears completely, becoming nothing more than a hesitation – a half-halt – and we get a flying change.

Flying change of leg 

The rules state: The flying change is performed in one stride with the front and hind legs changing at the same moment.  The change of the leading front and hind leg takes place during the moment of suspension.  The aids should be precise and unobtrusive. Flying change of leg can also be executed in a series at every 4th, 3rd, 2nd and at every stride (known as Tempi Changes).  The horse, even in the series, should remain light calm and straight with lively impulsion maintaining the same rhythm and balance throughout the series concerned.

In order to retain the lightness, fluency and ground cover of the flying changes in a series you must maintain sufficient impulsion.  Otherwise you will make it very difficult for your horse.  The aim of the Flying Change is to show the reaction sensitivity and obedience of the horse to the aids at the highest level of Dressage.

HOW TO: Maintain your canter aids and make a change of rein across the diagonal.  When crossing the centre line, half halt and swap the positions of your legs, so your new inside leg is on the girth and your new outside leg is behind the girth. Bend the horse gently throughout his entire body, not just at the shoulder.  Ensure the canter remains controlled and steady.  Allow with your hands.

Common Faults in Canter

Understanding the motion of the canter is important if a person wants to ride the horse with a balanced, secure, yet flexible seat.  To the rider, the horse’s back feels as if it is moving both up and down as well as somewhat back and forth, not unlike the motion of a swing.

collective marksThe canter is generally easier to sit to than the trot. However, it requires a supple seat that is correctly balanced. The rider’s seat bones need to remain in contact with the saddle at all times and ‘roll’ with the canter; allowing free movement in the hips and relaxation in the thighs. Your upper body should remain still while sitting, allowing the hips to move underneath. The shoulders should not ‘pump’ or go forward and back. If the upper body moves, it is usually a sign that the rider is tense in the lower half of the body.  The shoulders should remain back and still at all times. As with all gaits, keep a still lower leg (unless needed).

Relaxed arms follow the motion of the horse’s neck, put no effort whatsoever into this, simply maintain an elastic contact rather than mechanically pushing the hands forward or back.

Finally a few words of wisdom to help you on your way…CANTER – A few tips from Nuno Oliveira (selected quotes)

This concludes my series of posts about paces and regularity for the collective marks.  The next in The Collective Marks Series we will look at Impulsion: The horse’s desire to move forward, elasticity of steps and roundness.

Until next time, have fun!

Patricia, The Dressage Tipster

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