I was going through some old pictures of a horse show I had competed in a few years ago and when I came to one of myself cantering on my Arabian horse, Will, I was appalled. I knew that I always had a hard time getting and keeping him collected, but I never realized how bad he really was. I’m surprised I didn’t go off over his head!
Will's hindquarters are elevated quite a bit over his withers – it should be just the opposite - and looks like he will fall on his face at any time. He is over-flexed with his head behind vertical and his poll is tipped down to compensate for his lack of balance. He has no visual of being round and in fact looks like he's cantering downhill. Can you imagine cantering this horse through a field as a hunt horse?!
On the other hand, Joon, my National Show Horse mare, displays correct form at the canter. Her head is vertical and her poll is close to level (what most horseback riders refer to as a proper 'headset'). She has free, elevated shoulders with her hindquarters underneath her and a general “round” look. You can tell she's using her hind end "underneath" her to drive forward.
I have started working Will this spring to “reform” his muscles by using the butt rope that I have talked about before. I'm essentially teaching him to canter all over again. It is hard work for him and he is fighting it somewhat, but he is starting to come around.
I have also been using the butt rope on Joon and after using it just once, she started giving in and it has made a huge difference in the way she is moving. Her canters, because she is using her hindquarters underneath herself and is rounding her back, have become very cadenced and she is no longer racing in order to keep her balance.
Speaking of racing, it's also important to realize - if you're showing your horse English - the judge can ask you for the hand gallop gait in a class. Even at a quicker pace, your horse must remain collected! My daughter shows here in this video the proper collection at the hand gallop:
Of course, I'm merely working on the canter gait with my horses, but the ultimate goal is to have a collected, well-rounded horse at any gait.