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!