How to Nail the Canter

Guest post by Katie Boniface of Equestrian Movement.

Nailing the strike off and canter lead is actually super easy. What makes it difficult is that there are a lot of prerequisites to making it easy that are often missed.

Over the years I’ve had lots of trouble with canter leads. Am I on the correct canter lead? How do I get my horse to canter? How come I keep getting the wrong canter lead? Just when you think you’re all over it like mud on my just washed horse after I turn him out there were walk through simple changes!!!

It was always on my mind at dressage comps. That 7/8 plummeting to a 4/5 for a wrong lead or 5/6 for a late canter. Being called in last in the show class because I’d miss those canter leads.

After years and years…. And years of training I’ve finally found that when I set my horse up with the right foundations the canter lead ain’t no thang!

Does your horse know how to learn?

It may surprise you to realise but your horse wasn’t born into this world knowing outside leg behind the girth, inside leg at the girth means canter on and canter on with this lead. They also didn’t get to read the text book. They had to have someone teach it to them and depending on how well it was taught and how well they know how to learn will depend on how consolidated it is.

Even if they did consolidate it well when they learnt it, that was by a potentially completely different person that rides totally differently. And then how many other different riders have asked them in a different way since then?

There is a process to our horses being good learners.

  • They can’t learn when they are scared.
  • They have to understand that the pressure goes away when they get the right answer.
  • They have to have confidence to look for the right answer and therefore get it wrong a few times first. Even after they get it right they will actively get it wrong a few times just to check what happens when they try these other things.
  • They have to be appropriately motivated to give the right answer. Ie rest or reward.
  • They have to see us as someone worth taking orders from
  • They have to be able to confidently communicate with us if they are having a problem and have a way of getting us to back off our ask if they can’t get it.
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Does your horse happily say yes to the asks?

Willingness and consent are 2 of the big players when it comes to perfecting our aids.

If we want our horses so tuned in and refined to our aids that we can strike off the correct canter lead on the marker we have to either tell them no is not an option (which creates its own problems) or work has to be enjoyable and feel good.

Consent is the horse being able to say no, willingness is the horse saying yes anyway.

There is a process also to consent and therefore willingness (as opposed to obedience)

  • Your horse has to have a way to and be allowed to say no
  • There has to be a way for your horse to communicate if it can’t, doesn’t understand, or is having some other issue.
  • There has to be something in it for them so they are either moving away from something they don’t like or towards something they do like
  • Which means they have to have experienced consistency and understand what you are going to do for whichever behaviour they choose to do.
  • Which means they have to have toggling skills. Able to move out of their reactive brain and into their self control brain (this is why scared horses don’t learn easily)
  • Which means they have to be able to be calm, relaxed and keep breathing through stressful situations and experiences.

Is your horse balanced?

If your horse is not evenly developed in their musculoskeletal structure ie. Leaning into one fore leg more than the other, leaving one hindleg behind more than another and/or more supple one way more than another than we can’t expect them to easily pick up each canter lead perfectly.

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There is also a process to balancing your horse!!

  • Weight-bearing into the haunches
  • Weight loading evenly into all 4 hooves.
  • Shifting weight easily into all 4 hooves.
  • Relaxing and stretching their topline
  • Able to shorten their back by “stacking” their vertebrae so they can lengthen their neck
  • Work with engagement, drive, relaxation, swing and throughness so that they can get off the forehand, getting the hindquarters under and elevate through the shoulders to get that canter lead

Cue training

Once your horse knows how to learn, is willing and engaged in its training and can physically pick up both canter leads (without you inhibiting them or unbalancing them) teaching the canter lead is a simple cue.

Most horses will pick up a new cue within 10 minutes to 4 training sessions especially if they are positively motivated to get a reward. So the actual aid for canter is simple.

I train:

  • Outside leg says get ready to and is behind the girth
  • When you feel your horse shift its balance to get ready to canter, inside leg says canter on and is at the girth

This means that the horse will wait for the inside leg to say canter on so won’t canter too early but will be ready for the canter strike off as you apply the inside leg. This is how you get them to nail the canter strike off on a letter instead of between 2 letters.

Your horse will also associate the inside leg as the lead you are asking for (if they need a little extra clarity I will also tap them on that leading shoulder) so that you can confidently do trot through and walk through simple changes on a straight line knowing they will get the correct canter lead every time (perfect for that hack class).


Once all these parts are in play and you are ready to train the strike off on the marker preparation is really important. Your horse doesn’t just canter because you say so like a car will change gears.

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They have to recognize something is changing, know what you are getting ready to ask them, shift their balance and coordinate their body ready to do what you are going to ask them and then execute.

Depending on your horses level of education this could be anywhere from 3 – 5 strides for an educated horse to more for a green horse. It is important that you know how much preparation your horse needs both mentally and physically to get to that execution point to nail the canter stride on the letter.

Initially you can figure this out by starting your preparation at the letter and then seeing how far away from the letter you are when your horse actually strikes off the canter.

Practice it a few times because it will change as they get more sensitive and tuned in or more tired and bored. Use this for your feel for your horses responsivity.

Ideally once you know how your horse feels when they are ready and waiting for the ask your inside leg can come on and pop canter on the letter. Then give your pony all the praises, pats and love so they know they’ve done a good job and will put the effort in to try, try and try again for you each time you ask.

Katie Boniface has been a horse rider for 25 years and a riding instructor for 12, finding her passion as a teacher in a riding school environment. From childhood through to her early 20’s, she competed successfully at shows, dressage, showjumping and eventing at the state level. Having seen early success, she realized that something was missing: a meaningful connection to her horses. She soon discovered the importance of the horses’ mental, emotional and physical health to not only its performance and success but also to its willingness as a participant in our partnership. It is her goal and mission in life to share these values with as many horse riders as she can so we can start to see our beautiful horses as equals, partners, and part of our own life’s journey to better understand ourselves through better understanding others.

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