Clearing Up Confusion About Horse Canter Aids

Hi Guys:

Many people are confused about the aid for the canter. What follows are some common questions about the canter and my answers.

Q: I know to ask for the canter it is outside leg behind the girth and inside leg at the girth, however during the canter is your outside leg supposed to stay back or do both legs then become neutral at the girth once the canter is achieved?"

A: Swing your outside leg back ONCE, and then bring it back to its normal position on the girth. Think of it as a spring-loaded action or a windshield-wiper-like action. If you wait for your horse to answer, he's not listening to your leg aid. If he doesn't canter right away, give him a little bump with your outside leg or tap him with the whip. (Carry your whip in the outside hand for the canter work so you can use it to reinforce your outside leg aid.)

As soon as he does the canter depart, reward him.

You can teach him to canter by holding your outside leg back, but when you start doing half passes in the trot, your horse might get confused. He won't know whether to stay in the trot and go sideways for a half pass or to pick up the canter.

It's easier to teach him to canter from an aid that ONLY means canter depart than to teach him to canter from that aid and then have to reschool him when you get to trot half passes.

Q: Are you saying that the canter depart is achieved with the legs only? Or, were you just addressing your reader's concern about her legs? I thought the canter depart was achieved by a slight turn of the wrist on the inside hand, weight on the inside seat bone, AND the windshield wiper outside leg. Is that correct?

A: Yes! I was just addressing her concern about the legs...But you're right about the rest of the aids. I also push that inside seatbone toward the inside ear and support with the outside rein so I don't get too much bend in the neck.

Q: How do I use my hands and seat in the canter depart?
What rein aids, if any, should be used?
Do I stay centered with my seat or shift my weight to the inside or outside when I cue for a canter depart?

A: Your weight is on your inside seatbone. When you ask for the depart, push your inside seatbone toward your horse's inside ear.
Ask for flexion at the poll to the inside with a slight indirect rein aid, but support with the outside rein to keep your horse from over bending his neck to the inside.

Q: How do I keep the canter depart from being hollow?

A: Your horse is perfectly justified in coming off the bit if all you do is give the aid for a transition. To do a transition on the bit, you need to give two sets of aids at once--the transition aid AND the aid to tell him to stay on the bit--the connecting half halt. When you give these two sets of aids at once, you're telling your horse to "do a transition on the bit".

* Essentially, you'll superimpose the connecting half halt over the aids for a transition. That is, you'll give the connecting half halt before, during, and after the transition.
* In this case, the connecting half halt lasts longer than three seconds. It might even last six, seven, or eight seconds.)
* Apply it lightly before, during, and after the transition so that you "bridge" the transition with your connecting half halt.
* Start the connecting half halt before the transition. (Close both calves as if you're asking for a medium gait, close your outside hand in a fist to capture and recycle the power back to the hind legs, and vibrate the inside rein to prevent your horse from bending his neck to the outside.)
* Keep giving the half halt while you add the aids for the canter depart.
* AND keep giving the connecting half halt for two or three strides into the next gait.

Q: What aid do I use to go from canter to trot?

A: The primary aid for any downward transition is a "stilled" seat.

* Sit with equal weight on both seat bones, and stretch up tall so you have a gentle curve in the small of your back. I call this posture a "ready" back.
* Brace your lower back in a stopping, non-following or retarding way by tightening your stomach muscles like you're doing a sit-up.
* When you brace your back, your hips stop following the motion of your horse. Your non-following hips signal him to drop down to the next slower gait.
* To learn the feeling of stopping your hips, simply sit on your horse at the halt. Focus on the immobility of your seat.
* When you ask for a downward transition, mimic the way your seat feels in the halt.
* To practice your stilled seat, pick a point in the ring or on the trail. As you pass this spot, make your body immobile.

Q: How do I keep my horse on the bit during the transition back down from canter to trot?

A: Let's say you want to do a downward transition from canter to trot on the bit. Remember, if you want to do a transition on the bit, you need to give two sets of aids at once.

* Ask your horse to stay on the bit during the transition by giving the connecting half halt before, during, and after the transition.
* While you're in the canter, start your connecting half halt.
* After giving the half halt for a couple of seconds, add the aid for the downward transition by tightening your tummy muscles.
* In the beginning, it may take a few seconds for your horse to respond to your seat.
* No matter how long it takes, keep giving the connecting half halt until he listens to your seat and drops into the trot.
* Maintain the connecting half halt until you're trotting for at least two strides.

Note: If your horse does the downward transition from the half halt itself, you're either using too much hand and not enough leg or he's behind your leg. He should wait to do the downward transition until you actually still your seat. The connecting half halt is just for keeping him on the bit. It's not the aid for the downward transition.

Q: When we're cantering my lower leg and knee creeps up and my stirrups dangle on my feet (both left and right). What can I do while I'm working alone, which is most of the time, to improve my leg position at the canter? I realize lunge line lessons would improve my position, but that's not an option right now.

A: It sounds like you're gripping with your knees and thighs for balance. Think about relaxing your knees and thighs and letting your legs hang loose so that you feel your feet supported by the stirrups. Sally Swift has a great image for this. She says to imagine that your legs are so long that your bare feet are dangling on the ground, and you can feel mud squishing between your toes.

Q: I was initially taught to ask for the canter with the outside leg, as are most people. However, as I progressed in Dressage, I was taught that although my outside leg was behind the girth in the canter transition (to tell the horse which lead I wanted), I actually asked for the canter with my inside leg, at the girth. Is this right?

A: Absolutely. The outside leg tells the outside hind to strike-off. (The outside hind leg needs to strike off first for your horse to end up on the correct lead.)
Your inside leg at the girth tells your horse to go forward into the canter.
So, you do end up using both legs although the emphasis changes from your outside leg to your inside leg as you and your horse become more advanced.

Q: I unconsciously lean forward as I ask for the canter. Should I stay upright? Should I lean back?

A: Stay upright, but push your inside seatbone toward your horse's inside ear during the depart. As Kyra Kyrklund says: Pretend there are arrows extending down from your seatbones. You'll push your horse's hind legs in whatever direction your seatbones are pointed. So when you lean forward, your seatbones point backwards, and that's the direction you'll send the hind legs. By pushing your inside seatbone forward, you bring the hind legs with you and underneath your horse's body.

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Tags: asking horse to canter, dressage, dressage horse training, eventing, help with canter aids, help with horse riding aids, horse canter aids, horse training, jane savoie, jumping, More…keeping horse at canter, western

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Comment by Kay Vowles on September 27, 2009 at 2:51pm
Thanks - can you help a bit more with seat bones please. When you shift one seat bone relative to the other, you can move it forwards or back, but also up or down (relative to the other) . When I ask for a canter transition, is my inner seatbone going forwards and up, or forwards and down? I had understood that it helped the horse strike off with the outside leg if you lifted the outside seatbone up - which means relatively, the inside seatbone is down. Is that right? It doesn't seem consistent with the image of moving it towards the horse's ear...
Comment by Jane Savoie on March 19, 2009 at 7:33am
You're welcome!
Comment by Diana Bregman on March 19, 2009 at 1:17am
Great post! Such clarity! Reading this made me join up as a member of barnmice simply so I could leave a comment to say thanks!
Comment by Jane Savoie on March 14, 2009 at 7:12am
Awesome!
Comment by Anni on March 13, 2009 at 9:41pm
Thanks, this came at a perfect time for me and was very helpful!
Comment by IrishRider on March 11, 2009 at 6:36pm
This was helpful. I have been working on our walk to canter transitions in anticipation of our flat classes at the shows. Thanks.
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