Canter is an asymmetric gait because it has three beats, and is quite rolling in it’s way of going. This often leads to a horse becoming crooked.
As riders, we ride plenty of circles – or attempts at circles – and in the canter this focus on curves can overdevelop the inside bend and also help crookedness develop. One exercise we did at dressage camp was really useful in addressing this issue.
Instead of riding circles, we rode heptagons, or 50ps. The aim was to ride three or four straight strides, before turning and riding another few strides straight and turning again. Because the turns weren’t that acute, the horses found it slightly easier and were less likely to jack knife around the turns. As they get stronger the heptagon can become a hexagon and a pentagon, and eventually a square.
Riding a 50p focuses the rider on their outside aids, which means less inside rein, less neck bend, and less falling out through the outside shoulder as well as less of a bulge through the rib cage against the outside leg. Then the horse is straighter, which means the inside hind leg will come under further and will take the weight of the horse’s body, so improving the quality of the canter. If the horse is bent too much then they will fall through the outside shoulder instead of the hind leg taking their weight.
The other benefit of riding a 50p is that the inside hindleg is strengthened and made more supple around the turns. It has to come under and towards the horse’s midline in order to make the turn. When it does this, the canter has more push, and becomes more uphill. A lazy inside hind is also activated so the rhythm becomes a more concrete three beats.
After riding a few heptagons, I found that the canter felt much straighter and engaged. The horse I was riding lifted his shoulders and sat back onto his hindquarters, whilst still feeling very balanced. By not riding a circle, I knew my outside aids were more effective, which also means that it’s a really useful exercise for novice riders who predominantly use their inside rein.
The canter circles after were more balanced and I had a more uniform bend through the horse’s body.
I used this exercise with one of my teenage clients last week, who likes to overuse her inside rein in the canter, and her pony ends up turning his head and neck to accommodate her. After telling me she thought she was riding a 20p, not a 50p (they’re actually both heptagons – I checked as I started this article) she and her pony became straighter, she could feel the inside hindleg coming under and pushing them forwards, rather than out through the outside shoulder as it had done when they were crooked. In terms of jumping, having a canter that more effortlessly propels forward because it’s straight, means that jumping is more straightforward and effortless, and hopefully more successful.
So have a go at some canter not-circles and see if you can feel the improvement in the quality of your canter.