Timing Canter Aids

by Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Head of Dressage Department, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre

Striking off into canter on the correct lead at a particular spot in an arena is a basic requirement in many horse sports. As much as they practice, many riders struggle to coordinate their canter aids. If their seat aids, rein aids, leg aids or body position (dropping a shoulder etc.) is off, the horse may take the wrong lead. He may canter before or after the mark. The horse may rush forward faster at the walk or trot. Or he may decide to ignore the aids altogether.

Timing canter aids correctly requires awareness of the horse's footfalls. Understanding how the horse initiates and moves through a canter stride can help a rider understand and apply the canter aids more effectively.

The canter is a three-beat gait with a moment of suspension (all four feet off the ground) between each complete sequence or stride. In turn, the horse's legs swing forward in extension, contact and push off the ground, then retract beneath the body to prepare for the next extension. The horse's back swings and flexes as the hips and shoulders fall and rise. The rider's hips must open and close in order to follow and absorb this motion. The rider's elbows must open and close in order to follow the movement of the horse's head and neck as the horse rebalances with each stride. Some people describe the canter as riding a rocking horse or chair, others as sweeping the saddle from back to front with their seat.

Understanding what the horse's body is doing underneath them can help riders learn to time and coordinate their corridor of canter aids with greater success:

  • On the first beat of the canter stride, the horse's outside hind leg steps down as the first step to the inside lead. As the outside hind leg swings forward to take the horse's weight, the horse's hindquarters drop, the inside hind slightly more than the outside. The rider's weight sinks down and the inside hip drops slightly (however the shoulder should not) the upper body should remain tall and centered. The rider's joints must close and then open to follow the motion of the horse in the canter depart.
  • On the second beat, the horse's inside hind leg and outside foreleg swing forward and contact the ground together to carry his weight. The rider's hip and elbow angles begin opening slightly as the horse continues forward.
  • On the third beat, the horse's inside foreleg swings forward to carry all of the horse's weight. The rider's hip and elbow angles continue opening as the foot lands on the ground. Since the inside foreleg and shoulder swing farther forward than the outside foreleg and shoulder, this leg appears to 'lead' the canter stride. The horse is said to be on the left or right 'lead.'
  • As the horse rolls over the inside foreleg and the foot comes off the ground, all four feet gather underneath the horse in a short moment of suspension. The rider's seat has 'swept' or rocked as far forward as the horse's stride will carry it and the rider may feel a momentary period of suspension at the apex of the horse's stride. Then, as the outside hind reaches forward and contacts the ground to begin the next stride, the rider's opened hip and elbow angles must close again.

When it comes to canter aids, timing is everything. And the rider must have a good connection with the bit through the outside rein before the horse starts the first beat of the canter. This outside rein connection helps to set the outside hind leg on the ground which initiates the correct lead. At the walk or trot as the horse's outside hind foot leaves the ground, the rider feels the outside seat bone slightly lift. This is the critical moment when the rider applies a half halt to gather the horse's energy and hold the outside hind leg on the ground.

To ask for a canter depart, the rider sits a little heavier on the inside seat bone, positions the inside leg at the girth and the outside leg just behind the girth. The horse should be on the outside rein with his head positioned slightly to the inside and bent around the rider's inside leg. As the horse's outside hind foot leaves the ground (that slight hip lift), the rider half halts on the outside rein, softens on the inside rein, squeezes with the inside leg at the girth and slides the outside leg behind the girth. Properly timed, the horse should transition into the canter as his outside hind foot contacts the ground.

Some riders have difficulty bringing one leg slightly behind the girth to apply it while the other remains on the girth. Think of this from the horse's perspective. When the rider squeezes with both legs at the girth it means 'go forward' from the halt to the walk or the walk to the trot. Bringing the outside leg behind the girth before the squeeze means 'canter' and well-trained horses often shift into the canter as soon as they feel the rider's outside leg shift back.

Again, the rider must make a clear connection with the outside rein before half halting and asking for a canter. Riders who have difficulty feeling the hip lift that indicates the horse's outside hind leg is leaving the ground can glance down at the horse's inside shoulder. If they apply their half halt as the inside shoulder is back, just before it moves forward again, they should time their aids correctly. At the walk to canter, you can feel the belly swing to the outside when the outside hind leg is on the ground and about to lift. This would be the time to ask for the canter depart.

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