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Canter vs. Gallop: Learning About Horse Gaits

Questions about the difference between a canter and a gallop are among the most frequently asked questions about horses. In this article, you’ll learn about how, while both gaits are ways that horses run, comparing a canter versus gallop reveals major differences between these two paces.

Gallop and Canter Have Different Rhythms and Sounds

Comparing a canter versus a gallop becomes easy when you look at a slowed sequence of horses galloping versus horses cantering.

The gallop, which is a four-beat gait, leaves the horse suspended in midair for a fraction of a second before the next hoof touches the ground. In the suspension phase, the horse is entirely off the ground.

While the canter, which is a three-beat gait is a rocking motion created by the hind legs pushing the horse’s body forward.

In the coldest months bareback riding can be a warmer way to ride.

How Fast is Canter vs Gallop

Although you might expect it to be easy to compare the speed of canter versus gallop, because of the difference in horses size and stride length, as well as a riders ability to control the pace, it’s almost impossible to compare the speed of a canter versus a gallop (click here to learn how to slow down a horse that’s too fast).

Horses can maintain the rhythm and mechanics of a gallop or a canter while adjusting their speed significantly – think of it like how cars can move at vastly different speeds without changing gears.

The speed of a canter is about 10 to 17 miles per hour, with 14 to 15 mph being average.

The speed of a gallop is about 25 to 30 miles per hour, with 27 mph being average for full-size horses.

However, a Western pleasure lope (technically a canter gait) can be as slow as 8–12 mph, and at an all-out gallop, racehorses bred for short distances called Quarter Horses may gallop as fast as 55 miles an hour!

Learning to ride the Canter and the Gallop

While riders learn to ride their horse and a walk on the very first ride, and often progressed to riding a trot within 1 to 2 rides, it can take much longer to develop a secure seat in order to be able to safely ride a canter and eventually a gallop. These gaits have a strong rocking motion which, combined with the speed and the bumping is of a gait transition, can be a challenge for many new riders – especially adult beginners. If you are struggling with learning how to ride a canter, be sure and check out our article on how to relax and enjoy riding a canter.

Can Gaited Horses Canter and Gallop?

Many people believe that gaited horses are only able to perform at the unique gaits for which they are bred. However, the truth is that all horses can canter and gallop- although horses that have only been ridden at gaited gaits may not know how to canter under saddle. Gaited horses – including Missouri Fox trotters, Tennessee walking horses, and gaited Bashkir Curly Horses can canter and gallop. In fact, the nature of how these horses move often makes for a pleasurable and easy-to-ride canter.

Theodore O'Connor canters at the Rolex Kentucky competition.

Variations of Canter and Gallop

Canter Variations

Extended Canter

An extended canter is an advanced movement that is used to demonstrate a horse’s flexibility in gaits and stride length. An extended canter is a gait in which the three-beat canter rhythm is maintained but stride length is extended. In the extended canter, a horse will have increased suspension – or an appearance of floating above the ground between horse impacts on the ground. An extended canter may, in many cases, be faster than a controlled hand gallop.

Collected canter

collected canter is a bit of a misnomer, since every Canter is, at least to some degree, collected. In the dressage world, collected canter refers specifically to a canter in which the horse responds to a rider’s cues to gather their weight largely in their hindquarters, balance, and continue to canter forward with the shorter stride length and more upright forequarters. A collected canter requires both strength and balance, so a horse must be carefully trained to respond to these cues and physically conditioned to be able to perform the gait. Learn more about collection, and how to know if your horse is collected by clicking here.


Depending on who you ask, a lope is simply another name for a canter OR a gait so different from a traditional canter that it is almost unrecognizable. The difference in these opinions depends on context:

Lope (general use)

For most Western riders in the United States, the three-beat running gait of the canter is referred to as a lope. Many Western riding terms got their name from the Spanish influence on the western riding style, but in this case, lope takes its name from an Old English word that means ” “to run with long strides,” or, even farther back, a word meaning “to leap, jump, spring.” Since the canter is a gait in which a horse who rocks back under their hindquarters and leaps forward in rhythm, no wonder the term lope became applied as a word synonymous with the canter.

Lope (western pleasure competition use)

The lope as it is performed in Western pleasure classes is such a specific and unique gait that it deserves its own listing. A Western pleasure lope is, like a traditional canter, a three-beat gait, however, it is performed at an incredibly slow pace. Like a collected canter, this requires a balance and control, however in the Western pleasure competition lope the horse is not collected and balanced on their hindquarters, but instead under four quarters. The horse’s head remains down, and the Western pleasure lope may be, in many cases, even slower than a trot and far slower than a gallop.

Canterbury gallop

The Canterbury gallop is no longer a term used by modern equestrians, but this early 18th-century word gives us a clue of how the term “canter” became the choice description of the three-beat run of horse gaits. Webster’s dictionary entry for Canter indicates that this longer form of the word canter was the original way to describe the gait- and was given to the pace based on the preferred gait of pilgrims arriving on horseback to Canterbury, England.

A Bashkir Curly horse gallops on a cross country course.

Gallop Variations

Hand Gallop

A hand gallop is a variation on a traditional gallop. Typically, when a horse gallops they are reaching the limits of their maximum speed, but in the case of the hand gallop this is not true. A hand gallop is a gait that is slower and more controlled than a typical gallop.

When a rider holds a horse in a hand gallop, they are shortening the horse’s stride length and collecting their horse while still maintaining a four-beat pace of a gallop. The hand gallop is commonly used by cross-country riders closely managing timed courses and is the most common pace taken by riders taking a victory lap after a big win. Racehorses are also exercised at a hand gallop when the horse’s trainer is seeking to develop endurance or control in addition to speed.

Is a canter in a gallop the same?

No, a canter in a gallop are different gaits, with different rhythms and patterns in which the horses hooves hit the ground.

What is the difference between a gallop and a trot?

A horses trotting gait is a simple 2-beat jog, while a gallop is a leaping gait with four beats. A trot is sustainable over a very long distance, while a horse can only gallop for a short period.

How long can you ride a horse at a gallop?

There’s no hard and fast rule for how long you can ride a horse at a gallop because each horse’s fitness level, speed, and ability to gallop over long distances is different. The terrain being galloped over also impacts how long a horse can be ridden at a gallop. Soft, sandy, or squishy footing cushions each foot fall, but may make it more work for the horse to propel themselves forward with each stride. Surfaces that are too hard or uneven may make it impossible to sustain a gallop for even a short distance.

Additionally, it takes a lot of effort for a rider to stay mounted and follow the rhythm of their horse’s gallop – an average rider might get tired and need to slow down much faster than a horse conditioned for galloping!

A balanced canter transition will feel like liftoff, while an unbalanced transition may send you lurching forward unpredictably.
A balanced canter transition will feel like liftoff, while an unbalanced transition may send you lurching forward unpredictably.

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