The Shape Of The Canter

Vinnie at the THF Jumper  Show. Vinnie at the THF Jumper Show.

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I spent the better part of my weekend completely glued to live scores, Facebook, USEF Network videos and anything I could find covering Rolex.

After several days of non-stop feed and coverage, some spectacular and disappointing dressage tests, ups and downs on the intense cross country course and some startling show jumping rounds, I came to the sweeping generalization that one of the most crucial components that makes a four-star horse or any talented event horse revolves around the ability to produce a quality canter.

Needless to say, these horses also need to be incredibly scopey, fancy on the flat, bold and seemingly fearless, allergic to wood and the list goes on and on. Obviously the rider plays a huge role in the quality of their horse’s canter as well, though some riders have to work harder than others, as some horses have a more readily available quality canter.

But to go back to my oversimplification of one of the most grandiose events in the world, the shape of each horse’s canter, or the quality of each horse’s canter and how that canter both negatively or positively affected each horse in each phase, fascinates me. Perhaps this conversation would seem dull and infinitely obvious to any upper-level rider, but I am not an upper-level rider, so I am here to offer an outsider’s observation.

One thing I noticed while listening to the various commentators was the emphasis on the canter. You would hear phrases like, “She needs to shape the canter before coming in to that triple,” or “Riders cannot neglect the shape or quality of the canter.” I heard the same thing over and over again, particularly in show jumping. I didn’t actually listen to any commentary from dressage, but I’m sure there were countless canter comments as well.

Well, what the heck are we talking about when discussing “shaping the canter” or “the quality of the canter”? What does all the malarkey boil down to? How do we define these seemingly vague phrases? Personally, when I think of a quality canter, I envision a canter that provides a clear demonstration of under and up, meaning the horse has the ability to crouch, become more engaged, become more underneath themselves (or sit), which subsequently allows the front end to come up, all while maintaining a soft but apparent connection.

Furthermore, such a quality canter should also allow you to go forward, slow down or stay the same at a moment’s notice. Great canters give the rider options. Great riders build options into their horse’s canters. These ideas are inextricably linked.

I just found the final day of Rolex shocking, mind blowing even. Some of the best horses and riders in the world had rails flying left and right. Some couldn’t touch a rail if they tried. I have no idea or concept of how nervous, fried, tired or intimidated any of these four-star riders and horses were. I only saw what I saw.

The horses that seemed to do the best the final day had quick, uphill canters with seemingly soft connections. Some horses who came in to the triple on a “less than perfect canter” either barely made it through the line, demolished the line or had a run out. The shape or the quality of the canter seems like one of the most crucial components when searching for a clear round.

Again, I have no personal upper-level riding experience to base this theory on, nor am I discrediting any of the countless talented individuals and their horses. Their commitment, their perseverance, their strength, their sheer guts and their willpower will never cease to amaze me. Same goes with the unbelievably courageous and determined horses.

I am in awe of what these riders and horses are able to do. Whether they came home with a giant trophy, a Land Rover or they were eliminated on course, they made it that far, which is truly incredibly and inspiring.