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Equine Biomechanics (Part 3) – The Canter

Canter is an essential gait in the majority of equestrian disciplines. In some disciplines, such as show jumping, it is the most important gait. When evaluating canter from the biomechanics perspective, we can consider things such as limb coordination, stride characteristics or forces acting on the limbs.

Canter is characterised by a regular three-beat rhythm and a single moment of suspension during each gait cycle. Canter is an asymmetrical gait which means that the movement of the limbs on one side does not mirror the movement of the limb on the other side. On the other hand, walk and trot are symmetrical gaits (here you read more about biomechanics of walk and biomechanics of trot).

Footfalls in canter

The typical sequence of the limbs during a canter stride depends on whether the horse is cantering on the left lead or the right lead. For right lead canter, the footfall is: 1) left hind, 2) right hind together with left fore, 3) right fore which and 4) suspension. For the left lead, the sequence starts with the left hind (see diagram below). 

Footfalls for canter on the left lead (left panel) and right lead (right panel).

Leading and trailing limbs

In biomechanics, you can often encounter the terms ‘trailing limb’ and ‘leading limb’ (this could be either for a pair of forelimbs or hindlimbs). The leading limb is placed in front  of the contralateral limb (the limb on the other side) and it touches the ground second while the trailing limb contacts the ground first. You can see how the left limb is placed ahead of the right limb in the picture below when the horse is cantering on the left lead. For horses, the leading limb is on the same side for forelimbs and hindlimbs, i.e. for the ‘left lead’ canter the left hindlimb and left forelimb are leading, this is called transverse canter pattern (fun fact – dogs prefer rotary canter so their leading fore is always on the opposite side to leading hind).

A bay horse with rider in canter
A horse cantering on the left lead. Here the leading limbs are left fore and left hind and the trailing limbs are right fore and right hind.

The leading limbs protract more while the trailing limbs show greater retraction. Thinks about protraction as stretching of the limb forward while retraction is when the limbs stretch back. This means that, for leading limbs, the horses have to flex their elbow and hip joints more in order to achieve greater protraction. Greater retraction is achieved by a greater caudal scapula rotation (rotating back) in the trailing forelimb and a greater extension of the hip in the trailing hindlimb. This can be nicely seen in the video below.

A slow motion video of a horse cantering on the left lead (Source: Osteo 4Animals YouTube channel)

Due to faster speed and presence of suspension phase, the ground reaction forces are greater in canter compared to walk and trot. While in walk and trot the forces are of the same magnitude when we compare left and right limbs, this is not the case in canter due to its asymmetrical nature. The trailing forelimb shows greater extension of the fetlock compared to the other limbs which is indicative of greater weight bearing. Indeed, the peak vertical ground reaction forces in canter in the trailing forelimb can reach values of up to 1.5 body weight while the other limbs only experience forces of up to 1.2 bodyweight. The leading limbs are more involved in braking (decelerating the body) while the trailing limbs are more involved in propulsion (forward push).

Little note: Remember that, in biomechanics, body weight is the force your leg would experience if you were standing on one foot without any movement involved (purely due to the gravitational acceleration and your mass).

Canter requires greater flexion and extension of the back and especially the lambs-sacral region.  This is achieved by contraction of abdominal muscles so canter is a great gait for strengthening of abdominal muscles and for mobilising of the back mobility. The muscle activity increases as speed increases therefore canter is also great gait for strength training and cardiovascular fitness.

It is important to note that, thanks to the asymmetrical nature of the canter, some muscles have higher activity in the leading limb, while others have higher activity in the trailing. Consequently, we need to make sure that we canter our horses equally on both leads during training or rehabilitation to avoid asymmetrical muscle development or uneven loading. 

In addition, a deficiency in muscular strength on one side of the horse’s body may result in one canter lead being more physically demanding and the horse might struggle with one canter lead but not with the other. This should be considered when designing a training plan. Any persistent issues with canter leads should be investigated as these could be a results of an ill-fitting saddle or even a sign of an injury.

Canter is an essential gait in many equestrian disciplines. It is a great gait for strengthening of abdominal muscles and for mobilising of the back mobility. However, it is important to note that, due to the asymmetrical nature of the canter, there are differences between trailing and leading limbs when it comes to loading and muscular activity. Consequently, we should pay attention to how much time we spend on each canter lead (left vs. right) to avoid asymmetrical muscle development or uneven loading of the limbs.

You might also be interested in these posts:

Rider position and biomechanics – Is there a different between beginner and more advanced riders when it comes to rider position? Check out what the science says!

Practical Guide to Equine Gait Analysis – Brief introduction to equine gait analysis (includes 10 hand resources).

Are you curious about biomechanics-informed horse and rider training? Get in touch with Eva to book a coaching session – Eva covers Hertfordshire, North London and surrounding counties.

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