How do I keep my horse round at the canter?

By Leslie Desmond

This is a very good question! It can be answered in many ways. One way is to get control of all the body parts, then ask the horse to canter, and ride. Ride the roundness that's in him at birth, ride it right up to a spot just below the surface!

This works well when the components of this maneuver are well understood by the rider. Because this round posture is natural to the horse, if the person has enough experience to stay out of the horse's way and has his homework done, it will just show up as you lope along. It will be his natural response when you begin to take the slack out of the reins.

So, how does one go about this?

It depends on the riders and their levels of ability. Some riders will forego the perceived drudgery of groundwork, get the horse into a gallop and work this out on the run. The sensible rider blends the position of the lower back, seat and legs so they are in tune and in time with the hindquarters, and then does the same blending with the shoulders, arms and hands. The rider gets in time with the rhythm of the horse's shoulders and forelegs and the placement of his front feet. Capitalize on forward motion and the horse's instinct to stay upright. If you look where you want to go, the horse's balance isn't compromised and neither is his inborn capacity to travel straight. If the rider does most of the right things and not all of the wrong things, the horse will be getting ready to offer this roundness softly. Only when he's ready will he do this in a weightless, willing fashion. The sensible rider is getting ready for him to get ready, and gives no thought to the time it's going to take. That way one can reward the horse's natural tendency to round out at the lope anyway. You build from there.

But, what if he doesn't offer it?

Some riders prepare the horse while he's running so he can. This takes many years of experience, and most people don't take this approach even if they have quite a bit of experience, so it's a good thing that there is another effective way of going about it. To most riders it feels best when they have a firm grip on the basics.

We'll assume that the rider wants to lope with a round, soft frame that will also coincide with straightness. So as you think about round, incorporate the idea of straightness. How is this done? To straighten your horse without the use of gimmicks or force, incorporate the natural function of left and right. Why should we think about this, and do this? Because straightness, after all, is the absence of both, and the horse knows it. Fortunately, the horse's willing frame of mind is easy to observe when there is a complete absence of crookedness in his way of going. If the frame of his mind is not the rider's priority, then the desired frame of body cannot be arrived at without some use of force or fear. When crookedness is unknowingly trained into the maneuvers from the ground up, what the horse can't help but offer back is some form of resistance or hesitation, head-bobbing, foaming at the mouth, teeth grinding or tail wringing when he's being ridden. These are all symptoms of discomfort, confusion, or both. There is little to admire about a horse that carries himself in this unnatural and uncomfortable fashion.

By getting back to the basics and building in a good foundation, the observant rider will benefit from a much better understanding of the little things that must be watched for – these are the things that a rider who is in tune with the horse can either do or avoid doing to ensure that the horse keeps his understanding of the rider's intent very sharp. At the same time, the horse's physical capacity to implement the rider's intention remains quite available as well. It is easy for the horse to understand what's expected of him when the rider has a thorough understanding of a few simple exercises that will enable this to occur.

How long will this take? It is going to take however long it takes for each horse to understand exactly what the person means by what is presented to the horse through both indirect and direct feel. What is indirect feel? Indirect feel is the sense the horse gets about your intent or purpose through any non-tactile expression, such as movement, emotion, or thought. This includes tone of voice, mood, gestures, your physical posture, manner of walking, the way you use your eyes around the horse, the way you feel, and the way you actually are. These things have a great impact on how a horse reacts to a person. The way a person uses indirect feel is very important to the horse. Usually a combination of both produces the best results. What is direct feel? Direct feel is another source of information that the horse relies on to understand what you mean, what you want him to do. It is a form of physical touch. For instance, the direct feel of your hand, the halter on his nose, your snaffle bit rein against his neck, the bit against his gums, your leg away from or against his side, your caress on his forehead or shoulder, your whip, your spur, and so forth.

Before any serious consideration ought to be given to longitudinal roundness in the horse at the lope, lateral roundness must be evident at the walk, trot and canter to the left and the right.

What is longitudinal roundness? This is the roundness over the top line from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail. What is lateral roundness? This is a simple, balanced arc from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail along each side of his body. This important shape is determined by many things, but mainly, the accuracy of the lateral bend reflects the horse's understanding of the vision carried in the rider's or handler's mind. A balanced arc takes shape when this is clear to both of them.

What is the best way to achieve this? Now we are back to the foundation for longitudinal roundness as well. To ensure accuracy and willingness in both of these bending exercises, start (unmounted) by lowering his neck so his nose can reach the ground. This takes time and should involve no force. Polite requests produce polite responses in most cases. Plan to carry this approach over to your handling of his head and his understanding of moving it left and right at the poll when his neck is anywhere between the level of the withers or pointing down towards the ground. When that's good, back the horse up straight a few steps with the neck somewhat lowered, and lead him forward the same way. Gradually introduce the concept of forward and backward steps on a nose-to-tail, full body, lateral arc, until you can pass the horse by you this way, to the left and to the right.

How should this look? A balanced arc is created by moving both ends of the horse equally. It is characterized by smoothness. The lateral bend includes all of his parts - from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail - and commands his full attention.

How do I know if this maneuver commands his full attention? This will be obvious. How do I know if both ends are reaching equally? This should be obvious. When both ends of the horse move equally, in an arc to the left at the walk for instance, then the right foreleg is reaching towards the inside of the circle the same degree that the left hind leg is reaching towards the outside of the circle, or arc. The deeper the reach, the tighter the circle.

What is the best foundation for this maneuver? Convey intent accurately by breaking the foundation lessons down a little bit further for the horse after the basics of reciprocal feel are in place between you. How is this done? Test it out, standing next to your horse, on the ground, with a turn on the forehand followed by a turn over the hocks. Go through each maneuver very slowly in both directions. In other words, you are going to move one end of the horse at a time, in one direction at a time. This is done by asking the horse to tip his nose to the left and step his hindquarters to the right, around the forequarters, with the left front leg bearing most of the weight and moving the slowest as the left hind leg reaches deeply under his belly and steps well across the right hind foot. Then you would ask him to do the opposite: Move to the other side of the horse and tip the nose to the right and step his the hindquarters to the left, around the forequarters. The right front leg will bear most of the weight and be moving the slowest, while the right hind leg reaches deeply under his belly and steps well across the left hind foot.

The forehand gets freed up accurately in a similar fashion. Stand facing the back of the horse and with your hand placed thumb down at the halter knot or the snap, step his forehand away from you, and walk with him as he steps his front feet in a larger circle around the back feet. Change sides after he has offered to do this willingly for a step or two. For this to be effective it must be done slowly, step by step, in both directions until it can be walked through smoothly. Drilling the horse at this will take the fun and meaning out of it, so it's up to each person to know when the horse has had enough practice and gained the most that is possible from the session.

By this time, great meaning will have been "attached" to the feet through feel. What does this mean? It means many things. It means that your intent is clear. It means that your vision, of how you want him to operate his body and his feet, as expressed by you and felt by him through the life in your lead rope, is clear. How will I know he understands my intent? When the horse understands what you mean by what you do with your lead rope, the timing and placement of each foot will meet your expectations. When it’s right, you will notice and feel the connection in his mind between your intent, your hand, the rope, each foot, and the shape of his body as he livens up and follows the bridge of his nose in the direction and the speed that you choose. This is horsemanship through feel.

How does this pertain to getting him round at the canter when I take the slack out of the reins? His understanding of your intent through the lead rope is the basis for his understanding of the intent you convey to him about his body's position through the reins. What's nice about this is that when you send the horse around you to either the left or right on the lead rope, some things that will prevent the horse from rounding gracefully when you're on him at the lope tend to show up on the ground. These things can be taken care of before you ever get on.

What little things that show up on an arc are going to prevent the horse from getting round at the canter, or lope? The easiest ones to recognize are the heavy inside shoulder, the ribcage that sags to the inside of a circle, the hindquarters that swing to the outside of the arc, the nose that points to the outside of the circle, the head and neck that pull the person off balance as the horse passes by. If these undesirable things are absent at the walk and trot, it does not automatically follow that they will be absent at the lope. His understanding of how to move at the lope could reveal some other things that have been missed by the rider in the preparation for this maneuver.

If these undesirable things are taking place on an arc at the walk and trot, it is too soon to expect longitudinal roundness to show up in the lope, unless it suddenly appears in its most extreme form.

What is the most extreme form of longitudinal roundness? Bucking. This unwelcome thing is entirely avoidable if you know what to look for, and if you take the time to prepare your horse to travel the way he was meant to. The optimum lightness and roundness to build into the canter is based in straightness and poise. It contains an ironic sort of stillness as the horse moves forward – and within this is the basis for a graceful stop that is only a stride away from whatever else it is that you're doing with the feet. It's that way when you're truly in control of the life in the horse's body all the way down to the feet.


As the lateral flexion in the horse from the poll to the withers becomes more supple, the rider can leave more float in the lead or rein in order to achieve it. What is float? Slack. They way I see it, if you get good at riding your horse on a float, the roundness at the lope is going to have a natural look and feel to it. As the horse's capacity to offer flexion of the poll in both directions willingly increases, and lateral movements of the hindquarters becomes more fluid. As a result, it requires less and less pressure to create a bend in the horse as he travels. After a while, just a thought will produce it, and instead of waiting for your pressure, the horse will step to the release. Put another way, he will arrange his body in such a way that he never takes the float out of the rein or lead. (Of course many other things need to be in place, but it's something anyone can experience if they want to. I mention this to give both new and experienced riders some ideas about what there is to reach for in their unseen communications with the horse.)

When a relatively weightless response to move left and right is apparent, and when it's readily available, the rider will discover a very wonderful thing.

It is a spot between the two directions that is called "the middle". In that place that is also called "straightness", one discovers the sought-after roundness, of which vertical flexion at the poll is but a small piece. Unfortunately, many riders today mistake a superficial headset for true self-carriage. When roundness is not understood from the horse's point of view it is usually carried out in a way that, in effect, nails the forehand to the ground.

The experience of weightless willingness that I'm talking about, where straightness and roundness coincide, assumes that the front end is elevated. It assumes, further, that the head, neck, shoulders, and rib cage are all available, on a float, and that the hindquarters are ready for any maneuver at any speed. In other words, the whole horse is available, movable, placeable. IMPORTANT: What do you mean by "any speed"? Any speed. It means that to offer your green horse the best possible chance of offering you back the desired roundness at the canter, somewhere in your foundation you have learned to ride the horse at a gallop without fear, without banging around on his back, without snatching the slack out of the reins, standing in the stirrups or balancing on his mouth. If this sort of confidence is lacking, then the actual fear of a gallop will be a deep part of any cantering that is done. It will feel that way to the horse, and look that way as well.

When the horse is both straight and light, when each foot is available because his mind and the rest of his body are too, there will very likely be roundness at the walk for a few steps. Build on this at the walk until it is solid. Then experiment with attaining this at the trot, and in the transitions up and down between the walk and trot. It is very important at this juncture to resist the inclination to be greedy for results. If you keep his lateral suppleness and willingness available to you as the longitudinal (vertical) flexibility of the poll and neck increase, then it is reasonable to expect that you will find in the horse a degree of comfort as he travels with roundness for short periods as he canters along.

You build from there with many transitions into and out of the backup, walk, trot, and canter, on a float of course, and with the top line lengthened to its full extent most of the time. That way, when you remove some slack, the horse will round himself up and forward, to keep the float he's grown accustomed to available to you both. This is how I like to prepare the horse for ease of handling his shoulders, ribs and hips, and greater accuracy or hoof placement in any maneuver at any speed.

This is achieved with the most natural looking feel and appearance if it is approached without the use of drop or figure-eight nose bands, pulleys, side-reins, martingales of any type, or draw reins. The use of these things at any stage in the preparation for this maneuver is often used as a shortcut to circumvent the actual basics. In most cases use of these is likely to distort the outcome of the endeavor.

About the author:

Leslie Desmond is the co-author of True Horsemanship Through Feel. Additional information about the book she co-authored with Bill Dorrance, her articles, videos and clinics can be found at

Leslie's second book, Refinement on the Reins, is a new presentation of classical technique, and will be published in 2002.

© 2000 Leslie Desmond