In dressage tests, being able to strike off onto the correct canter lead at the designated marker is a basic requirement. In fact, an incorrect strike-off is usually given an automatic mark of 4.0 or sometimes even less.
However, poorly coordinated canter aids are a prime cause of mistakes in this exercise.
In this article, we look at how you can perfectly time your canter aids for the best results.
Why should you time your canter aids?
Making sure that you apply your aids for canter at the correct time provide the following benefits:
- Helps the horse understand what you want
- Makes it easier for the horse to transition into canter whilst staying through to the contact and in a good balance
- Prevents the horse from striking off on the incorrect lead
- Increases the chance of a clean and smooth transition
- Helps the horse to stay relaxed
What happens if your canter aids are poorly timed?
If you time your signals poorly, problems can often occur, including:
- An incorrect strike off
- A muddled, unbalanced transition
- A late or early transition
- The horse may anticipate the transition and increase the tempo
- The horse runs into canter
- The horse launches off the shoulders into canter, rather than pushing from hind legs that are placed under the body
- The horse ignores the aids completely
So, how do you make sure that your aids are correctly timed?
Understanding the canter stride sequence
To know when to apply your canter aids for the best effect, you need to understand the horse’s canter stride sequence.
The canter pace has a three-beat with a clear moment of suspension between each stride, during which all four of the horse’s feet are off the ground.
Right lead canter
When cantering with the right leg leading, the sequence of footfalls is:
- The left hind leg hits the ground first to start the canter stride
- The diagonal pair of the horse’s right hind and left foreleg swing through and touch the ground together
- Finally, the leading right foreleg comes forward
This is followed by the moment of suspension before the sequence starts again.
You should be able to clearly count 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, as the horse canters along, matching each beat the corresponding number in the sequence.
During each canter stride, the horse’s legs swing forward, pushing the horse up and forward. The legs then retract back underneath the horse’s body ready for the next stride. Simultaneously, the horse’s shoulders and hips rise and fall.
Feeling the canter stride sequence
To perfectly time your instruction to the horse to transition from a trot or walk into canter, you need to learn how to feel what’s happening underneath you.
On the first beat of the canter stride …
As the horse strikes off into the canter, his outside hind leg hits the ground. As the horse’s outside hind leg comes forward to bear the weight of the horse and rider, you will feel his hindquarters drop slightly, as the inside hind leg drops a little more than the outside one.
As a result, your weight will drop down, and your inside hip will sink slightly. That’s fine, but your shoulders and upper body should remain centered and upright in the saddle. Don’t tip forward or lean to one side!
On the second beat of the canter stride …
On the second beat of the canter stride, the horse’s outside foreleg and inside hind leg swing forward and hit the ground together to bear the horse’s weight. Your hip and elbow angles should open slightly to allow the horse to continue moving forward unobstructed.
On the third beat of the canter stride …
On the third beat of the canter stride, the inside (leading) foreleg comes forward to take all the weight of the horse and rider.
Your hip and elbow angles should open as the horse’s foot hits the ground.
At this stage of the sequence, the horse’s inside foreleg and shoulder move further forward than his outside foreleg and shoulder. That creates the illusion that the horse’s inside foreleg is leading the canter stride.
At the moment of suspension of the canter stride …
Next, the horse’s body rolls over his inside foreleg, and his foot leaves the ground. At that point, all four feet are underneath the horse and off the floor in a brief moment of suspension.
During that moment of suspension, your seat has rocked as far forward as your horse’s stride will take you, and you should feel that moment when all the horse’s feet are off the ground. Then, as the horse’s outside hind leg swings forward and hits the ground again in preparation for the next stride, your open hip and elbow angles should close once again.
When to ask for canter
Because the canter sequence starts with the horse’s outside hind leg, you need to ask for the canter as this leg is coming down to contact the ground.
At this precise moment, you can change that step from a trot or walk step into the first canter step.
How to perfectly time your trot-canter aids
Now that you understand your horse’s canter stride sequence, you need to practice “feeling” that sequence. Once you can do that, you’ll perfectly time your trot-canter aids!
The outside rein will have an elastic balancing effect whilst the inside rein will have an allowing signaling tendency.
This step is crucial!
As you prepare for the canter transition in walk or trot, you will feel your outside seat bone lift slightly as the horse lifts his outside hoof off the floor. At that moment, you must use a half-halt to capture the horse’s energy and momentarily hold the outside leg on the ground.
To ask the horse to strike off into canter:
- place a little more weight into your inside seat bone
- keep your inside leg on the girth to bend the horse around
- place your outside leg slightly behind the girth
- keep the horse into your outside rein
- have the horse flexed slightly to the inside
So, to summarise:
As you feel your hip lift slightly:
- use a halt-halt with the outside rein
- give the horse a squeeze on the girth with your inside leg
- slide your outside leg back slightly behind the girth
- give a forward downward push with your inside seat bone
If you time your aids correctly, the horse should make a smooth transition into the canter at the moment his outside hind leg hits the ground. However, it’s essential that you have the horse into the outside rein before you ride a half-halt and ask for the transition to canter.
What if you can’t feel the horse’s hip lift?
Don’t panic if you have trouble feeling the horse’s hip lift, indicating the outside hind leg is coming off the floor.
Learning to develop that “feel” can take some time. In the meantime, if you’re in trot, take a quick peek at the horse’s inside shoulder. Apply your half-halt as the inside shoulder comes back right at the moment before it swings forward again. That should enable you to time your canter aids correctly.
If you’re making a transition from walk directly into the canter, when the horse’s outside hind leg is in contact with the ground and just about to lift, you’ll feel the horse’s belly swing to the outside. At that moment, ask for the canter transition.
The correct leg aids
From the horse’s perspective, when you squeeze with both your legs at the girth, that aid tells the horse that you want him to go forward into a new pace, for example, from a walk into a trot, or from a halt into the walk.
When you move your outside leg back and place a bit more weight into your inside seat bone right before you give your horse that “go forward” squeeze, a well-schooled horse will understand that you want him to canter.
Once your horse understands that aid, he will often make the transition immediately he feels your outside leg swing back and your weight shift.
Related Read: How to Use Your Legs
A smooth, timely canter transition is essential for good marks in dressage tests.
Start by learning the mechanics of the canter stride sequence. Then, you can know when to ask for the canter transition and teach yourself how to feel the exact right moment.
Make sure that your horse is focused on you and is working forward before you ask for the canter transition. And remember that, like most things in dressage, practice makes perfect!