EFFICIENCY OF TROT VERSUS CANTER

By Steven Roberts

The question of whether a fast trot is better for endurance than allowing the horse to break into a canter has been asked on the chat site & is an interesting one. From the point of view of efficiency of energy utilisation, a critical factor for endurance horses so that they don't "run out of gas", there does occur a point at which it is better to "change gears" into a canter than continue to ask your horse for an extended trot.

To maintain a huge trot is unnatural for most horses & although many endurance horses are very good at it, there are some disadvantages. Firstly, efficiency of energy use, as measured by the amount of oxygen required to maintain a certain speed - this has been measured & the following graphs clearly show the points where it is better to "change up a gear" rather than go faster by using "greater revs", just like in your vehicle. In that experiment, a canter became more efficient than going faster at a trot at about 4.5 meters per second (16.2 kph), which is still a fairly fast trot.

The other benefit of the canter at higher speeds is the efficiency of breathing, as the sliding of the abdominal viscera (guts) backwards & forwards acts like a piston on the diaphragm & does the breathing for the horse, without it spending extra energy to do that. You will notice your horse breathing in time with its stride at the canter because of this "visceral piston" effect.

Another benefit of the canter is reduced concussion on the musculo-skeletal system, because of the longer period of suspension between foot falls.

The other factors to be considered are comfort for the rider and often therefore for the horse if you are not a proficient rider, bouncing around at a fast trot will require your horse to use more energy. The potential concussive effect on the musculo-skeletal system of the back by the rider at the trot versus the canter also has to be considered and may aggravate saddle fit problems.

Another consideration from the biomechanical point of view is the side to side "screwing" effect on the pelvis caused by a huge trot, when one hind leg is fully extended backwards while the other hind leg is fully extend forwards. This causes more stress on the pelvis/spine attachments than does the more natural "rocking" motion invoked by a canter. So called sacro-iliac problems are seen in Standardbreds (trotters & pacers) and rarely in Thoroughbreds.

And don't forget, as a general principle even with "normal" trotting, continually change diagonals to avoid over using one set of muscles & even in some cases probably contributing to that rather interesting phenomenon that we see not uncommonly in endurance horses, the unilateral (one side only) tie up - quite amazing! Just another illustration of how much we have yet to learn about what causes the condition. And while we're on the topic, similarly with cantering, frequent lead changes are a must.

So when you're out on track, either enjoying the countryside, going for it, or both, do what suits you & your horse up to a point, but don't get carried away thinking that a huge trot is just the best thing!

Happy riding!


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