Training in the Right Way: Evaluating Canter Photos

This week’s article continues the discussion on what you can see in a still photo, specifically evaluating canter photos.

Photographs of horses and riders can be very educational and serve as excellent tools to develop “the eye” of a dressage enthusiast. It is also an excellent way to evaluate your own riding and training. Looking at a still photo gives us the opportunity to see the mechanics of the horse and rider working together (or against each other) and allow us to really study the effect of the rider on the horse’s balance and way of moving. That said, it is of great importance that we always understand that a photo is just moment in time. It can be a fabulous moment, or a moment worthy of great embarrassment. But one photo does not tell the tale of the whole ride, or all the training. The only way to determine that the training or a whole schooling session or test is ultimately very good or very bad, is to watch all of it. Lacking that, all you can judge is the moment the photo shows you.

That said, the more you know about dressage, the proper development of the horse’s muscle structure, and good dressage equitation, the more you are able to determine about a horse’s training. Because training is repetition over time and it takes time to develop the horse, it is important to note that not every good thing or bad thing you see in a photo is the direct result of THAT rider. Additionally, the horse can just be what that rider has to ride. This means that if everything looks amazing, it may be in spite of that rider’s riding. Or if things look really awful, it may be what that rider has inherited. In other words, learning how to evaluate what you see in still photos has to be tempered with a sense of empathy and desire to seek knowledge, not just judge what you see.

In the previous article, we looked at a group of trot photos to start the discussion of the basics of what to look for to determine good training and riding, this week we will look at the same basics in some canter photos. I have chosen three different horses at three different levels of training and competition in essentially the same moment of the canter stride. All three horses are in a moment of lengthening their stride in the canter appropriate to their level of work. Unlike the walk and the trot, the canter is an asymmetrical gait. There is always one diagonal pair that works in unison and one diagonal pair in which both legs have different actions in a single stride cycle.

In all three photos, the outside hind leg is the only weight bearing leg in this moment of the canter stride. This is the moment where only the first beat of the canter stride has landed. That weight bearing leg should be under the horse’s hindquarters in this moment, not behind the horse’s tail, as it has just landed on the ground and  is supporting all of the horse’s weight while preparing to propel the horse forward.  The inside hind leg should still be reaching forward underneath the rider’s pelvis but still in flight at this moment. It should also be very close to parallel with the opposite front leg (outside front). In a true three-beat canter these two legs are supposed to land in unison creating the second beat of the canter. It is very much okay for the outside front leg to land ever so slightly after the inside hind leg (showing uphill tendency), but it absolutely should never land before the inside hind leg (which shows a four beat canter).

If you compare the three photos, you can see the the uphill tendency is present in all three, but the Grand Prix horse shows the most difference in that diagonal pair and the First Level horses shows the least difference. This is appropriate as the First Level horse should absolutely not be off the forehand as much as the Grand Prix horse. He is not strong or supple enough to show that collection. Also, in comparing the three horses you may pick up on some differences in the three horse’s style of movement.

Gwyneth McPherson and Eskandar. Competing at First Level in 2014. Photo credit unknown.

What we can tell from this photo is that this horse is in an uphill balance (off the forehand), in a canter with impulsion being developed in it. As discussed earlier the front outside leg has a little more space between it and the ground than the inside hind leg. This shows uphill tendency. The reach of the inside hind leg coming well forward and under the rider’s weight tells us that the horse is balanced under the rider and he is developing some impulsion (as he is in a canter lengthening, he should be doing this). His diagonal pair is not parallel, and although it is close, it does suggest that the rider maybe should be allowing a little more space in the rein contact in order for the horse to reach equally forward with the right front as he is with the left hind. You can also note that while the horse’s head is on the vertical and his poll is close to the highest point, he does not appear to be reaching his head and neck out enough. If he was showing the right amount of reach in his neck, the toe of his right front leg would be reaching to the vertical line of his head if it was drawn to the ground from his forehead.

Maybe in the next few strides the rider will have rectified this, but for this moment she is restricting him just enough with her hands that you can see it in the picture. What we can be assured of by looking at this picture is that whatever is causing the slightly shorter neck and slightly less reach of the right front leg, it is not great enough to stop the overall balance, impulsion, or forwardness of this young horse. Also, we can see that the rider’s hands are low and, while the elbows are bent, they are not behind the riders shoulders (which would indicate that she is actually pulling back). Another indication that she is not actively pulling is that the horse’s mouth is not open, and he is not behind the vertical. She is otherwise in balance with the horse, not leaning too far forward or back, and does not appear to be inhibiting the horse’s movement other than the slightly too strong connection.

Gwyneth McPherson and Angus, competing at Third Level in 2012. Photo (c) Icon Studios.

Here we have a Third Level horse in an extended canter appropriate to his level of training. This moment is ever so slightly later in the stride than the last one, as evidenced by the inside hind leg just starting to touch the ground and the outside hind leg is extended a little further back in the cycle of the stride. That said, they are both placed similarly as in the First Level horse to support the horse’s weight on the hind leg and reach under the rider’s weight. So this hind leg placement is indicating forwardness and impulsion. The outside font leg is still off the ground and is almost perfectly parallel with the inside hind. The leading front leg is higher and more animated, showing more articulation of the joints, than the First Level horse, indicating more collection (as it should be at Third level).

This horse is appropriately ever so slightly in front of the vertical and his nose is leading (a little ahead of both front legs) which is absolutely an indication of a very good connection in the reins. Also of note, the shank of the curb bit is almost vertical and the poll is up. It is not exactly the highest point, but pretty close. It is especially noteworthy when you compare it to the curbs and head and neck position of some pictures of horses with double brides where their mouths are gaping. From my perspective of judging myself in these to photos, I find it somewhat amusing that my arm position (in terms of equitation) is better in the first picture (straight line from the elbow to the bit, with low hands), but the two horses are telling us that I’m making a better contact, in the horse’s opinion, in the second photo. In this photos my hands are little too high and my elbows are a little too bent, but in spite of this I am not restricting his neck and head at all.

Gwyneth McPherson and Flair competing at Grand Prix in 2016. Photo (c) Flatlandsfoto.

In our last picture we are looking at a confirmed Grand Prix horse in extended canter. The uphill tendency is drastically greater and very easy to see through the horse’s whole body, not just if you look at the diagonal pair of the second beat. These two legs are perfectly parallel. It’s also clear that her balance is definitely on the hind leg when you look at the positioning of the right hind leg under her hindquarters and her left hind leg swinging way forward and under the rider’s pelvis. When we start looking at Flair’s head and neck and my connection with her bits, and consider some of he things I talked about with Eskandar and Gus, I think its interesting that we have a bit of a mix of what we find in the other two horses. My equitation (in my arms and hands) is quite good here. The elbow is a little in front of my shoulder (so not pulling back) and I have a straight line from my elbow to the snaffle bit (so keeping a direct, but moveable contact). But even still, the curb is a little behind the vertical line, so I am definitely using it in this moment, and she is a little shorter in the neck than she should be and is on the vertical when we would like to see her nose leading a smidge more to match where her front legs are.

Her nose is a little behind her right front leg, but not by a lot and it doesn’t appear to be changing her balance (as seen by the parallel legs) or her impulsion (as seen in the hind legs) or her uphill tendency. Also, her mouth is closed and quiet looking. It would be very interesting to have a series of photos of the strides right before and right after this moment to see how much of this is in fact “just a moment in time” and how much of it is a consistent fault in need of improvement. In this particular case, I happen to know that this mare’s neck conformation lends itself to being a little short and it was always necessary to be ultra careful with the contact so that it didn’t just get shorter and tighter, especially while in competition.

As I stated initially, when you look at still photos of dressage horses schooling and competing, there are many indicators that you can learn to see that tell you if the riding is being done well and if the training is being done in the right way. The more you study photos of yourself and other riders, the more you will be able to see and the more you will understand about the mechanics of the rider’s position, the horse’s muscle structure, and how these things effect his movement. My goal with these last two articles was to hopefully give an overview of some of basic things to be aware of and look for as well as what those may be indicative of with regards to the training. I challenge you to take the time to review some photos on your own now, perhaps of your own riding, and see what you may be able to glean from them.

Gwyneth and Flair in competition at Grand Prix. (c) flatlandsfoto.

Gwyneth McPherson has over 35 years experience competing, training, and teaching dressage.  She began her education in in the late 1970s, riding in her backyard on an 11 hh pony. Her first instructor introduced her to Lendon Gray (1980 and 1988 Olympian). who mentored Gwyneth for a decade during which she achieved her first National Championship in 1984, and her Team and Individual Young Rider Gold Medals in1987.

In 1990 Gwyneth began training with Carol Lavell (1992 Olympian) who further developed Gwyneth as an FEI rider and competitor. Gwyneth achieved a Team Bronze in 1991 and a Team Silver in 1992 in the North American Young Riders Championships, and trained her stallion G’Dur to do all the Grand Prix movements while riding with Carol.

In 2008, while Head Trainer at Pineland Farms, Gwyneth began training with Michael Poulin (Olympian 1992). Michael was trained by Franz Rochowansky (Chief Rider for the Spanish Riding School 1937-1955). Michael has shared much of Rochowansky’s knowledge and wisdom with Gwyneth, completing her education as a Grand Prix rider, trainer, and competitor.

Gwyneth’s teaching and training business, Forward Thinking Dressage,is based in Williston, FL. In addition to teaching riders and training, Gwyneth also loves sharing her knowledge of the sport and art of dressage as well as discussing relevant topics pertaining to the training itself and the current competitive landscape.