The canter is 3-beat gait followed by a suspension phase when all four feet are off the ground. The canter can be "true"; leading with the left leg when going to the left or "counter"; leading with the left leg (and staying flexed towards the left leg) when cantering to the right.
Right hind supports all weight,
all other feet clear of the ground
Weight shared by left hind, right hind and right fore
Weight shared by right hind, left hind and right fore, left fore clear of the ground
Weight shared by both fore legs and left hind as right hind lifts
Weight on left fore as left hind lifts, right hind and right fore clear of ground
Moment of suspension when no hoof bears any weight
Freedom and Regularity of the Canter
1. The canter is a pace of "three time", where at canter to the right, for instance, the footfalls follow one another as follows: left hind, left diagonal (simultaneously left fore and right hind), right fore, followed by a movement of suspension with all four feet in the air before the next stride begins.
2. The canter always with light, cadenced and regular strides, should be moved into without hesitation.
3. The quality of the canter is judged by the general impression, the regularity and lightness of the three time pace originated in the acceptance of the bridle with a supple poll and in the engagement of the hindquarters with an active hock action and by the ability of maintaining the same rhythm and a natural balance even after a transition from one canter to another. The horse should always remain straight on straight lines.
4. The following canters are recognised: working canter, collected canter, medium canter and extended canter. (Classical dressage recognises the school canter, which is a canter like the one a horse must get into to perform an accurate canter pirouette.)
4.1 Collected Canter. The horse remaining on the bit moves forward with his neck raised and arched. The collected canter is marked by the lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters: i.e., is characterised by supple, free and mobile shoulders and very active quarters. The horse's strides are shorter than at the other canters but he is lighter and more mobile.
4.2 Working Canter. This is a pace between the collected and the medium canter in which a horse, not yet trained and ready for collected movements, shows himself properly balanced and remaining on the bit, goes forward with even, light and cadenced strides and good hock action. The expression "good hock action" does not mean that collection is a required quality of the working canter. It only underlines the importance of an impulsion originated from the activity of the hindquarters.
4.3 Medium Canter. This is a pace between the working and the extended canter. The horse goes forward with free, balanced and moderately extended strides and an obvious impulsion from the hindquarters. The rider allows the horse remaining on the bit to carry his head a little more in front of the vertical than at the collected and working canter and allows him at the same time to lower his head and neck slightly. The strides should be long and as even as possible and the whole movement balanced and unconstrained.
4.4 Extended Canter. The horse covers as much ground as possible. Maintaining the same rhythm he lengthens his strides to the utmost without losing any of his calmness and lightness as a result of great impulsion from the hindquarters. The rider allows the horse remaining on the bit without leaning on it to lower and extend his head and neck; the tip of his nose pointing more or less forward.
4.5 The cadence in the transitions from medium canter as well as from extended canter to collected canter should be maintained.
5. Counter-Canter. This is a movement where the rider, for instance on a circle to the left, deliberately makes his horse canter with the right canter lead (with the right fore leading). The counter-canter is a balancing movement. The horse maintains his natural flexion at the poll to the outside of the circle, and the horse is positioned to the side of the leading leg. His conformation does not permit his spine to be bent to the line of the circle. The rider avoiding any contortion causing contraction and disorder should especially endeavour to limit the deviation of the quarters to the outside of the circle and restrict his demands according to the degree of suppleness of the horse.
6. Change of Lead Through the Trot. This is a change of lead where the horse is brought back into the trot and after a few trot strides, is restarted into a canter with the other leg leading.
7. Simple Change of Lead at Canter. This is a change of lead where the horse is brought back immediately into walk and, after a few clearly defined steps, is restarted immediately into a canter on the opposite lead, with no steps at the trot.
8. Flying Change of Lead or Change of Lead in the Air. This change of lead is executed in close connection with the suspension which follows each stride of the canter. Flying changes of lead can also be executed in series, for instance at every 4th, 3rd, 2nd or at every stride.
The horse even in the series remains light, calm and straight with lively impulsion, maintaining the same rhythm and balance throughout the series concerned. In order not to restrict or restrain the lightness and fluency of the flying changes of lead in series, the degree of collection should be slightly less than otherwise at collected canter.
(There is some debate as to whether one tempi changes should be considered truly classical as, along with the Spanish Walk and canter backwards, they are seen as more of circus trickery than high school. The change of lead at every stride was unknown to the classical riding masters prior to François Baucher demonstrating them in the nineteenth century. However once the Spanish riding School re-evaluated Baucher’s writings they considered them a valid exercise and were also included in dressage tests from Prix St Georges upwards.
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Classical Dressage Notebook