Is The Canter 3 beats or 4?

It’s a tricky one. Because it’s both three beat or four beat depending on your level of training; and tricky in that it is also both correct and incorrect with four beats.

Confused? Yep, a lot of people are from my observations.

Let’s start with average Jo Bloggs, working up to elementary level with an average all rounder horse. You know the type. Which I think encompasses the majority of leisure riders. A correct canter for you is a three beat canter; the outside hind coming forwards followed by the inside hind and outside fore together, then the inside fore and the moment of suspension.

You might have heard coaches talking about the fact your canter is four beat, or talking about improving the quality of the canter so it is more of a three beat canter. A lot of leisure horses can have a four beat canter, when the diagonal pair becomes broken and those feet don’t touch the ground simultaneously. But in a negative way. The sequence of legs is the outside hind, outside fore, inside hind, inside fore. It’s almost a lateral canter, and results from a number of issues. A horse who is too much on the forehand, lacking impulsion or activity in the hindquarters, has an interfering rider, has poor conformation or stiffness in their hindlimbs, is likely to develop this lateral, four beat rhythm. Sometimes when a horse loses balance they will revert to the four beat, lateral canter, when otherwise they have a three beat canter.

So this laterally four beat canter is not good from a training perspective because it’s very difficult to create the elevation needed for collection and lateral work. You can improve it by the use of polework, using more seat and leg to create impulsion, using hillwork and medium canter to create a more active hindleg, but ultimately it is performance limiting, so you’d struggle with advanced level work. This type of four beat canter is called negative diagonal advance placement (DAP).

That’s the negative four beat canter out the way, now let’s look at the positive four beat canter. Have you ever seen photos of elite horses, youngsters or under saddle, and noticed how uphill their canter is? And how there is no way the diagonal pair hit the ground simultaneously because the forelegs are so elevated? Well you’d be right. The inside hind does land fractionally before the outside fore. This is called positive diagonal advance placement.

So why is a sequence of footfall outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore, seen as a positive four beat canter? Well firstly, a horse who can engage their hindquarters that much will be more powerful and find collection easy. If you watch a horse doing a canter pirouette you will see that it is a definite 4 beat canter, which it has to be in order for them to be able to rotate almost on the spot. A horse who is unable to canter with a positive DAP will find this level of work nigh on impossible.

This means that when you are looking for the next future dressage champion, you are looking for a four beat canter, a positive DAP, as that suggests that they will be able to perform at the higher levels. A good example is below.

I had a look through my photos and found one of Phoenix at her first prelim. She had an unbalanced canter at the time, and you can see that although it looks lovely at first sight, she is showing slight negative DAP. I’m struggling to find proof of her recent canter work (apparently babysitting duties trumps cameraman duties?!) but just by her becoming stronger and more balanced she shows strides of positive DAP, particularly when she relaxes into collected canter work.

I then also found this image of Matt, showing slight positive DAP. Of course, not on par with the elite dressage stars, but a useful example.

This image of Matt brings me onto my final point, or musing. At what point does a positive DAP become a gallop? After all, the sequence of footfalls is the same on paper – outside hind, inside hind, outside fore, inside fore. I asked my trainer for her opinion, and she thought the gallop was differentiated because of it’s speed and the horse’s carriage whilst galloping – long and flat rather than uphill. She also helped explain that in a three beat canter the footfalls are regular, in a four beat canter the diagonal pair aren’t landing together, but they aren’t a whole beat apart. It’s like they’re slightly off beat. In musical terms: crotchet, quaver, quaver, crotchet.

There is loads of information about diagonal advanced placement, and it happens in the trot too, so go and have a look on Google. And when you come out the other end of the rabbit hole, let me know what you think of the subject!

Hoof Wall Separation Disease

I went for a hack last week with a friend and we were chatting about mutually known ponies, as you do. She had recently passed up on buying a Connemara for her daughter. The pony is talented, and has a good level of education, but unfortunately he suffers from Hoof Wall Separation Disease, previously known as Hoof Wall Separation Syndrome.

I had never heard of it, but it is a genetic problem for Connemaras. Basically, it is caused by both parents carrying a recessive gene, meaning that it is quite difficult to trace as carriers have sound feet. 

Ponies with HWSD have hoof walls that crack and crumble very easily. All four feet are affected, and symptoms can be seen as early as 2-3 weeks of age, but it will always develop within the first year of life. Pieces of hoof crack, chip and peel off, often involving the whole of the dorsal wall. As the hoof grows down to become weight bearing it will immediately deteriorate, leaving the horse walking on the soles of his feet, with no dorsal support.

Some people confuse HWSD with White Line Disease, but a horse with HWSD will not respond to treatment for white line disease or fungal infections.

Some horses can display a milder version of the disease which can be managed to a degree, but most horses suffering from HWSD are euthanised. The condition tends to worsen with age and the foal will develop severe infections as well as being in severe discomfort and pain.  

Horses with the milder version of HWSD can be managed by remedial shoes, types of hoof care, restricting turnout or exercise so that the hooves are not exposed to wet-dry conditions as changes in response to environmental factors can worsen the disease.

There is now a test for HWSD, and a lot of breeders with Connemaras and part bred Connemaras are having their breeding stock tested so that two carriers are not bred together. Carriers will have normal feet, so there is no way to observe the presence of one recessive gene.

People are calling for the HWSD test to be a legal requirement of Connemara breeders, but it’s just as important to educate potential buyers of the disease so that they request a horse be tested for it during a vetting. If the market stops buying affected horses then breeders will take note and stop breeding from carriers of HWSD.

Jumping Straight

The ground had started drying out beautifully last week, but then Wet Wednesday arrived. Unfortunately after several soakings, I was teaching a brother and sister a jumping lesson, and the ground had deteriorated a bit. So I had to use my initiative and change the lesson plan.

We spent longer warming up, worked without stirrups, and did less canter work. The horses worked in well, so I found the best area of ground and set up a simple cross pole. On the approach I placed two poles perpendicular to the fence so that my riders had to focus on being straight on their approach. 

The two of them are different levels, which makes it harder to teach exercises as it has to benefit both of them. For the elder, her horse tends to charge at the fence, so the poles give him a distraction. He also tends to go crooked in his canter when prevented from rushing. The poles make him stay straight through his body, hindquarters directly behind the shoulders. With a straight body, the horse can jump with a better bascule, and more economically because energy can flow easily from the engine to the shoulders.

For the younger rider, the poles gave him a goal in where he should be in canter, and it helps him aim for the centre of the fence, and it has the similar straightening effect on the pony.

Once they had mastered the poles on the approach I narrowed the train track and added another after the jump to give the riders a focus when riding away from the fence. 

After riding the exercise a couple of times I made it into an upright. Keeping the canter straighter meant it was more rhythmical and both horses jumped more consistently, meeting the fence in a better place, and clearing the fence more easily. 

To finish, we turned to another upright and the rider’s  had  to find their line, and use their leg and hand to maintain the straight line, and to keep the horse straight in their body. Both horses jumped beautifully, so I’m looking forwards to building on this around courses.


I was checking a friends mare for lameness earlier today and said “the windgall on the near hind is harder and more swollen than the off hind” or words to that effect. I was horrified that not a dingle person, out of the five horsey people there, knew what a windgall is.

So here’s my explanation.

A windgall is a wear and tear injury, which is quite common in working horses, and is usually of no problem and doesn’t cause lameness, except for looking unsightly. It is more common on the hind legs, and is located just above the fetlock. A windgall is a swelling of the tendon sheath, caused by an excess of synovial fluid. There are two types, which I remember from college studies; articular windgalls and non-articular windgalls. The articular windgall being a swelling of the fetlock joint capsule whilst the more common non-articular windgall which is a swelling of the digital tendon sheath.

Windgalls are affected by the environment and climate; a horse who has jumped on hard ground will have more enlarged windgalls the following day, whilst warm days and standing in a box can cause them to swell too. Many people use bandages to support the tendon in exercise, and to reduce swelling when in the stable, but daily bandaging can cause rubs and problems elsewhere in the tendon.

Horses tend to have symmetrical windgalls, and they should be easily compressible with the pea sized pocket of fluid moving around the leg under pressure.

Occasionally windgalls can appear suddenly and cause problems, but this is usually when the tendon fibres are damaged, so called inflammatory tenosynovitis. This can be investigated using an ultrasound scanner and appropriate treatment taken to resolve the root cause. In this case the windgall will be quite hard and tender, and treatment is usually box rest and bandaging along with a course of anti-inflammatories. Some people suggest draining the windgall, but the horse’s body will just produce more fluid to protect the tendon. The best course of treatment for windgalls is to establish the cause: be it tendon damage, or wear and tear, hard ground or warm weather and then support the leg appropriately, using boots or bandages and cold hose the legs if they swell up.

A horse with particularly large and unsightly windgalls.

Conformation – Part 5


The final part of my Conformation Blog is about the equine engine; the hindquarters. The shape of the quarters and the angle of the joints are good indicators of the horse`s potential for speed and jumping. It can be difficult to assess the skeletal conformation, however, as there is a lot of muscles to disguise this.

The hindquarters should be in proportion to the rest of the body, see Part 1 for a recap, and the hip, stifle and hock should articulate well. The rump should be rounded, with a good length from the point of hip to the point of buttock; with the tail neither set on too high or too low. Common problems with the back and hindquarter area, are goose rump, which is a steep croup, leading to a shorter stride; and jumpers bump, which is an enlargement or misalignment of the lumbar and pelvis vertebrae. This is associated with horses who have jumped incorrectly, have long or weak loins.

The hock is one of the hardest working joints in the body, and it is essential that it is correctly formed in order to ensure its strength and longevity. A well formed hind leg has a vertical line from the point of buttock, the back of the hock and the lower leg and fetlock. “Well let down hocks” are when there is plenty of length from the point of hip to the hock. When looking from the side, if the hind leg is too straight chronic problems can occur due to increased concussion, but also the patella is prone to locking; so called “locking stifle”. If the hind leg stands under the horse, with an overly bent, weak hock, known as sickle hocks, there is a higher risk of developing arthritis or spavins in the hock, due to the increased strain on the back of the hock. A horse who has camped out hind legs also has the increased risk of developing hock problems as they can`t support the horse`s weight correctly. A horse with camped out hindquarters tends to develop a sway back and find it harder to engage the hindquarters.

When looking from behind the legs should be vertical; if there is a variation from this, such as in the case of cow hocks, then excess strain is put on the inside of the legs and joints. Alongside cow hocks there is usually a twisting of the hocks, which has a knock on effect of stressing the rest of the joints in the hindquarters.
The horse`s legs should not be too close together, for there is then a risk of brushing or speedicutting, thus risking injury to the legs. Horses which are wide behind usually have a rolling, stable and slow gait.

Conformation Part 4

This post about the horse conformation looks at the horse`s back and barrel.

There is a wide variety of “normal” backs with horses, but ultimately it should be strong, of adequate length and in proportion to the rest of the horse. A horse with a long back is more prone to muscular injuries and can find it harder to track up and connect their hindquarters to their forehand. A short back is more at risk of kissing spines, and the horse may be prone to over reaching or forging.
In addition to the length of the back of the horse you should also look at the shape of it and it`s muscular development. The ideal back has a slight dip behind the wither, along the thoracic vertebrae, rising to the croup; in older horses or those with “sway backs” this dip is pronounced. Think of it like when we arch our backs; the horse`s spine is weaker and it is less able to carry weight. A horse in poor condition may look like it has a sway back due to a lack of muscle. A roach back is when the spine curves up along the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae; these horses struggle to flex and often have stiff gaits.
Sometimes obese horses look like they have stronger, better backs, because the fat gives the illusion of muscle development. Within an obese horse, with a flat broad back, there is often “mutton withers”, which is a poorly defined, flat wither which makes saddle fitting difficult.
The rib cage of the horse should be well sprung; the horse shouldn`t be slab sided, as seen in many Thoroughbreds, as this makes it difficult for the rider to put their leg on and there is less room for the lungs to expand. If the rib cage is too round and well-sprung it can affect the upper arm and shoulder movement, but it does give a lot of room for the lungs to expand. Another conformational point of the ribs and barrel is “herring gutted”. This is when there is a sharp rise from the girth to the stifle, giving the horse a greyhound appearance. This appears in stressed horses, such as three day eventers at the end of the competition, in undernourished horses, and in those who don`t engage their hindquarters or use their abdominal muscles. This affects their stamina, stride length, jumping ability, as well as pre-disposing them to back problems.

Conformation – Part 3


This conformation blog covers the withers, shoulder, and front leg.

The withers should be well defined, and on a continuous line to the neck with no dips. Older horses are more likely to have dips, as are those who work incorrectly. Defined withers give plenty of roomfor muscle attachment and help keep the saddle in the correct place.
Personally I am not a fan of prominent withers, preferring to see a flat backed horse to a high, undermuscled wither. I also worry when the wither is so prominent the rugs and tack will rub, causing no end of problems. A rub on the withers is known as “fistulous withers” and are a nightmare to treat and heal; I also think that we don`t know if the rub is causing irrepairable damage to the bone and thus the spine. Also, is it a factor in the development of kissing spines?

The chest of the horse should be deep, to provide enough heart and lung room. If it is too narrow and the legs “come out of one hole” then there is a high risk of injury during exercise by brushing and knocking the other leg. Cobs tend to have a wider chest, with wide apart legs which makes them stable but slow, and gives them a rolling gait.

The ideal shoulder should have a 45 degree slope to the horizontal. Or indeed the vertical as 45 degrees is exactly half a right angle. The other thing people look for is to have the hoof-pastern angle the same as the shoulder. So even an upright shoulder should have an upright hoof-pastern angle. But the HPA causes different conformation in the foot… more on that one next time!
An upright shoulder gives a short choppy stride, whilst a sloping one makes the stride longer and the horse more comfortable. In addition, you want the shoulder to match the pelvis and hip, in order for the gait to be equal, and so that the hindquarters don`t suffer fatigue and work stress.

Finally, the foreleg! This should be long and well muscled, with a short cannon bone. The horse has no muscles below the knee and hock, so a short cannon bone means there`s less length of tendons, which makes them stronger and more robust. Seen from in front the legs should go straight down, imagine drawing a line through the middle of the leg. Any deviation in this will hinder the horse`s gait as they will be more prone to dishing,plaiting or brushing with their legs. In addition, legs which aren`t even will have more strain placed down one side of the leg, either the outside or the inside, so the horse is more prone to tendon or ligament strain, windgalls, or even side or ring bone. Upon viewing the horse from the side you want to see a good column of support; I find this part difficult to judge as so often horses don`t stand square, or they shift their weight looking like they are over at the knee etc. If the horse is back at the knee there is more strain on the tendons; if they are tied in below the knee there is not enough room for the tendons.

The fetlock joint shouldn`t be round or puffy as this suggests problems within the joint. If it is well defined then it should move more correctly and fluidly.

Please don`t look at your horse with new found critical eyes; unless there is something obviously wrong no one is perfect, and most of us manage perfectly well with less than perfect conformation. Next time we will go on to the feet.

Conformation – Part 2


The head should be intelligent, alert, and display a good temperament. It should be in proportion to the rest of the body. I find a small head ungainly, and a large head makes the neck appear undermuscled and weak, particularly on a long neck. The eyes should be large, kind, and set well apart, giving them a wide vision. The ears should be mobile, curving to a point. The ears display the horse`s temperament by being pricked forward when he is looking at something and engaged, and lying flat back when he is irritable.
The mouth should have enough room for a bit, and the tongue should not be too fleshy – but this depends on the breed. The jaw should be mobile, and the horse neither have an overbite or an underbite as this affects their grazing ability. The lips should be soft, and the nostrils large so that ample air can be taken into the lungs. This is important for an eventer when galloping across country, or a Thoroughbred racing.
The jaw and poll should have enough room for flexion, so that the oesophagus isn`t restricted when the horse is working to a contact, particularly in dressage.
I am a sucker for the dished face of Arabs, finding the Roman nose too heavy for many horses. Except the Shire. I also like a kind eye, feeling that I can engage with the horse and “see” their personality.

Going along to the neck; the horse should have a good topline, but this can be disguised with excess fat. The neck should be long and elegant, but it also serves the purpose of helping the horse balance. The neck should flow onto a sloping shoulder; if it is set on too high, the horse has a “swan neck” which is worsened by an overdevelopment of the under muscles in the neck, further problems caused by this are short shuffly strides, and a tense jaw. But that`s another story. If the neck is set on too low it gives the appearance of the horse being on the forehand, you feel like you`re sat “at the top of a slide”, and the withers always look prominent with this type of neck, and it`s difficult to build up a correct top line.
If the neck is too long it will be weaker, and put the horse on the forehand; whilst a short neck shortens the strides.
Weak necks are my bug bear; I feel they are so unsightly! But there is nothing worse than an overly cresty stallion!

Part 3 coming soon!

Conformation – Part 1


This is the first in a series of posts about conformation, and as always, has my opinion. As all horses are different, all disciplines require different strengths, and all riders prefer different builds of horses, it is highly subjective and open to opinion.

Feel free to give an opinion!

Conformation is made up of two aspects; the skeleton and muscle/fat development. Skeletal conformation cannot be changed, but development conformation can be used to disguise weaker areas of the body. As equestriads, we need to learn to look beyond the colour of the horse, the number of white legs it has, and see what strengths the horse has, and how we can best train the horse to work correctly and thus increase their working lives.

Initially, we have to look at the horse overall and judge whether the forehand and hindquarters are in relation to each other; whether the feet are balanced and in proportion, the length of the back and barrel, and the position and shape of the pelvis. Someone once taught be to see if the horse, from the withers to the point of buttocks, and down to the hoof, fitted into a square box. The head and neck should be half the length of the body again.

Part 2 begins with the head next time!