Dingo's Breakfast Club HOME PAGE | Biomechanics Home Page

Collected Canter, School Canter
& Pirouette Canter Compared

Dressage canters show a range of tempos, from about 109 strides per minute (extended canter) to 63 strides per minute (pirouettes). With each slower tempo, the stride rate has a profound effect on the ground contact time of the gait. This ground contact time lengthens because there is a need for increased stability. Stability involves not only the number of feet grounded (1 being the least stable, 2 as diagonal pair being moderately stable and 3 being most stable) but the need for straightness (R-L balance) as well as positive relative elevation (mobility). With the need for rotation, as in the canter pirouette, lateral suppleness is added to the requirements.
Comparison of medium, collected, school and pirouette canters (free longe):
comparable selected frames from digital video of one stride.
Medium Canter
Rio Sereno
Collected Canter
(no suspension)
School Canter
(no suspension)
Pirouette Canter
(no suspension)

Medium Canter, Collected Canter & School Canter

Medium Canter (Vulkan at age 27)
In medium canter, the horse shows roundness consistent with high impulsion and reasonable ground covering, some of which is accomplished by the forward glide in suspension (all four legs off the ground). It is the canter where the phasing of the legs is most equally spaced in the timing of a canter stride. As collection increases, the legs are phase shifted to accommodate the slower tempos.

A careful check of the image chart above will show the limb phase adjustments horses make in these different canters. Frames are chosen to illustrate equivalent moments in these canters for comparison of leg positions.

Collected Canter (Vulkan)
In collected canter, the diagonal pair lands sooner in the timing of the stride than in medium canter. This adds to stability by lengthening the first time 3 feet are grounded (two hind legs, outside foreleg). As the school canter is developed, the second time that 3 feet are grounded is also lengthened (inside hind, both forelegs). These are PHASE changes in the relative positioning of legs. They are also correlated longer limb contact times (very hard work!) with less ground covering, slower velocity and greater mobility (capacity to change direction). The muscular effort expended by a horse as collection and engagement increase are involved with controlling its mass along with that of the rider. It is crucial that riders manage their aids with minimal interference with the horse's coordination to maintain the purity of canter.

School Canter (Max)
The school canter is preparation for the canter of the pirouettes. While it is not specifically called for in dressage tests, the need for it arises in USA Fourth Level where a horse is asked for quarter pirouettes. The test reads "very collected canter" just before the quarter turn. Whatever its designation, this degree of collection is important as a connector in the spectrum of canters. Its mastery is on the path of incremental development of a horse's gymnastic capacities toward the canter for pirouettes.

It interesting that Nuño Oliveira, in Classical Principles of the Art of Training Horses, remarks that "The pirouette is without doubt one of the most difficult exercises to execute. Rare is the horse which executes the pirouette without the whole horse bobbing up and down. In the true pirouette the horse remains round and light."

If these movies play too quickly on your computer, use the controller to step through the frames.

Pirouette Canter

Pirouette Canter (Max)
This a demanding canter and is related to the canter in place. It is a major test of gymnastic capability, just as the "shaukel" is a major test of throughness. The need for rotation further places demands on the phasing of the legs: this adjustment of phasing is found in lateral work in general, because the trajectories of the legs are altered away from covering ground forward to reaching to the side.

In the image table, Max shows that he understands requirements of the pirouette by adjusting the moments of rotation by turning when legs are free to reach to the side. It is the function of the hind legs to maintain position while the fore legs reach in the direction of the pirouette. He is able to cross his fore legs (Frame 6) while balanced on the outside hind leg (taking weight on the hindquarters).

As for the demands [of the pirouette] on the aids of the rider, Oliveira states "The rider's buttocks during the execution of the pirouette must be very flat and open and sitting balanced and evenly in the middle of the horse. ... An experienced or well informed spectator or discerning judge can, in the execution of this exercise, realize how the rider uses his aids."

The reason for Master Oliveira's request for relaxed, delicate aids can be seen from the comparison frames BELOW (Raynyday Maximillian). Tension on the part of a rider would interfere with the coordination (purity) and balance of the gait or movement.

School Canter A:
Nose in center of chest, slight inside bend, no tilt in head (this is easier for Max than the pirouette position). There is an asymmetric "warp" in the shape of his rib cage, reflecting axial rotation with the right hind grounded so his right hip is above his left hip.

School Canter B: Position of right & left hind legs allows for advance on the circumference of circle, slight inside bend + axial rotation (right hip up) seen from the outside. At time one of canter, Max's weight is carried on the outside hind, but it is placed slightly differently from the placement for pirouette below.
Straightness in the school canter, in the service of
advancing forward on an 8 meter circle. Poll position up and nose slightly ahead of the vertical.

Pirouette A: (Time two of canter) Nose in center of chest, faint tilt in head (this is Max's stiff side), clear lateral bend + axial rotation of body (note inside hip dip), left hind under left hip to maintain small circle. As this and the image next to it indicate, hind limb placement is critical for support. The spatial arrangement should not be too narrow (very unstable) nor too wide (falling to inside so circle described by hind legs becomes too large.

Pirouette B: Outside (right) hind directly under right hip and incrementally more engaged than in school canter (time one of canter), outside of body lateral bend clear + axial rotation (note right hip up), left hind maintains small circle, the striding is free of the exaggerated rocking often seen in a "terre a terre" pirouette.
Straightness for canter pirouette, in the service of balance during
rotation of the forehand through each stride. Poll position up, nose at the vertical. These images show maintenance of the sequence of footfalls of canter.

Front legs are carried near the center of mass in the forehand during rotation.

Canter circle to right (La Guériniérè - École de Cavalerie, 1733 Charles Parrocel, engraver)

Pirouette left ABOVE
(La Guériniérè - École de Cavalerie, Charles Parrocel, engraver)
These illustrations reflect the concept of canter prior to the invention of film cameras.

In these images from La Guériniérè's 1733 edition of his book, the difference between the placement of the hind legs for a small canter circle and a canter pirouette are illustrated. The horse is "stuck behind." Parrocel has also illustrated the difference in lateral bending.

Terre à Terre ABOVE
Mezair BELOW (La Guériniérè - École de Cavalerie, Charles Parrocel, engraver)

Different execution of canter pirouettes illustrates different conceptions of the movement. The photos are linked to their original web sites. The more the sequence of footfalls resembles the canter, the smoother the execution because of limb overlap timing. However, a horse needs to place the inside hind so that torque on limbs is minimized (see free longe pirouette above). It is worth noting the low poll position and tilting of heads where relevant.

Classical rider position has hands together with "rein guided by gravity."

Relative elevation, placement of hind legs and lateral bending are different for canter, canter pirouette, mezaire and terre à terre. These different hind leg positions reflect whether or not the movement covers ground forward, combines forward movement with rotation or is perfomed in place (mezair). If the hind legs are close together, the gait is not a canter.

The definition of pirouette is lengthy (Article 412 of the FEI Rules), but the gait specifications for walk, piaffe and canter are particularly interesting in Sections 3 through 6:

3. At the pirouette (half-pirouette) the forefeet and the outside hind foot move round the inside hind foot*, which forms the pivot and should return to the same spot, or slightly in front of it, each time it leaves the ground.

4. At whatever pace the pirouette (half pirouette) is executed, the horse, slightly bent in the direction in which he is turning, should, remaining <<dans le main>>** with a light contact, turn smoothly round, maintaining the exact cadence and sequence of footfalls.

5. During the pirouettes (half pirouettes) the horse should maintain his impulsion, and never in the slightest way move backwards or deviate sideways. If the inside hind foot is not raised and returned to the ground in the same rhythm as the outside hind foot, the pace is no longer regular.

6. In executing the pirouette or the half pirouette in canter, the rider should maintain perfect lightness of the horse while accentuating the collection and the engagement of the quarters.

*Consider the sequence of footfalls of canter, with Time One as the landing of the outside hind. The inside hind may serve as a reference point for the pirouette placement, but if the true sequence of canter is maintained, the inside hind is grounded with the outside fore in Time Two, resulting in three legs on the ground. Think of trying to rotate a chicken on three rotisserie spindles and you will see what the problem with wording is here. Much of the rotation of a pirouette occurs when limbs are in swing phase (off the ground - see frames A, B & C below for canter and 9 -12 for walk) while the grounded limbs provide a base of support. The wording of the rule reflects the idea of the pattern of a pirouette as composed of two concentric circles and does not describe its mechanism.
<<Dans le main>> is translated from French into English in the FEI Rules as "on the bit" - there are some who prefer to translate the French phrase as "on the aids."

Problems arise with understanding pirouettes, I think, because interpretation of the movement requirements reflects different contexts for observing (images from dynamic recording media, static illustrations), judging (evaluation in real time) and defining it (words versus images). For my horses, learning how to manage forehand and hindquarters developed in walk pirouettes and later transferred to pirouettes in piaffe and canter. On the free longe below, where there is no interference from rider or equipment, Max illustrates management of his mass and limbs in the three frames below, maintaining the cadence and sequence of footfalls for canter.

Pirouettes place demands for longitudinal suppleness, lateral suppleness, strength and coordination on a horse (canter pirouette left).
Placement of inside hind under inside hip, outside fore supports outside shoulder while inside fore reaches in swing phase to the left toward position for tracking on the outside circle of the pirouette. Inside fore has almost landed and shoulders widely stretched forward and sideways as horse rotates. Inside fore released, outside fore crosses over while the outside hind takes the whole mass of the horse in positive relative elevation (withers above croup, spine at least parallel with ground). Inside hind is lifted and will be replaced slightly in front of its former location.

Part of a walk pirouette right illustrates skills that are important for accomplishing much of the pirouette rotation by positioning legs in swing phase while grounded legs maintain support. In this pirouette the hind legs experience some torque (11) as they cross and the shoulders are stretched in stepping to the side (9) and across (12). The sequence and cadence of the walk are maintained.

A review of the series of canters from medium to pirouette can be summarized as increasing demands for stable elastic strength, positive relative elevation with longitudinal suppleness (roundness, lightness, bending), straightness (balance), and lateral suppleness. A table could be constructed to show this progression:

CANTER Susp Relative Elevation
(round, light: "up through withers")
Straightness Lateral Suppleness
(lateral bend + axial rotation)
Longitudinal Suppleness
Tempo (strides/min: slower means longer ground contact time)
yes positive push, carry some moderate effort
(esp. at S-L joint)
about 99
no positive carry, round some more effort about 89-70
no positive carry, round, engaged some major effort about 75-66
no positive carry, round, rotate, engaged maximum maximum effort 68-63

It can be seen from this comparison that canter pirouettes are exceptionally difficult maneuvers, because they involve simultaneous demands on all the gymnastic qualities acquired during training.


Back to Dingo's Breakfast Club HOME PAGE | Back to Biomechanics Home Page