What is Cantering?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Cantering refers to a three beat horse gait.
Cantering refers to a three beat horse gait.

Cantering is a three beat horse gait which falls between the trot and the gallop in terms of speed. This gait is very smooth, especially on a well-trained horse, and developing skills at the canter is important for both horses and riders. When the canter is accelerated, it turns into the gallop, a four beat and extremely fast gait.

Describing a horse's movements at the canter is a bit complicated; basically, the gait starts with one rear leg on the ground, and the three other legs in the air. The next step involves setting the opposite foreleg and the other hind leg on the ground, and then the original leg is lifted while the foreleg on the same side is brought to the ground. Then, all the legs are lifted at once to prepare for the next cycle, in what is known as the “suspension phase.” While riders had long suspected that there was a point in the canter where no feet were touching the ground, it was Edward Muybridge who was able to prove it in the 1800s, with the assistance of photography.

Cantering falls in between the trot and the gallop.
Cantering falls in between the trot and the gallop.

You may have heard riders referencing “leads” when discussing cantering. The lead is defined by the leg which leaves the ground last before the suspension phase, and it makes a big difference to the horse's appearance and balance. Horses need to be able to change leads easily to compensate for changes in terrain, and in dressage, horses are sometimes asked for flying lead changes, in which the lead is changed in mid-canter.

Almost all horses can naturally walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
Almost all horses can naturally walk, trot, canter, and gallop.

As with other horse gaits, there are different types of cantering. All horses can naturally demonstrate the working canter, which is a natural form of the gait. In a collected canter, the horse is asked for more control, creating a compact gait with smaller strides which showcases control and power in the hindquarters. Horses can also be taught to do the extended canter, a gait which is very close to a gallop. Western horses often learn to lope; loping is a slower version of cantering well-suited to a long workday on the range.

When a horse speeds up while cantering, it may begin to gallop.
When a horse speeds up while cantering, it may begin to gallop.

Many riders like to sit while cantering, because it offers them greater control. While seated, a rider can shorten or lengthen the stride, and keep the horse stable. Some riders use a half-seat, in which they are partially raised from the saddle; this is common in jumping. Other riders use a version of posting, in which they move from a seated to a standing position; this is sometimes seen in polo and buzkashi.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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    • Cantering refers to a three beat horse gait.
      By: Mikhail Kondrashov
      Cantering refers to a three beat horse gait.
    • Cantering falls in between the trot and the gallop.
      By: pauws99
      Cantering falls in between the trot and the gallop.
    • Almost all horses can naturally walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
      By: Kseniya Abramova
      Almost all horses can naturally walk, trot, canter, and gallop.
    • When a horse speeds up while cantering, it may begin to gallop.
      By: Petra Eckerl
      When a horse speeds up while cantering, it may begin to gallop.