While the leg aids change little between the walk and trot, the canter does require some change in function and coordination.
Even when riders seem to know what they're doing, there may be some confusion about the fine tuning of the aids. Students often ask me to review especially the leg aids for the canter to make sure they are asking for the correct lead, and timing the aid in a way that helps the horse the most.
The basic aids are the way you first learn to ask for the canter. This method helps the rider find and keep balance especially as the horse changes gait and takes that first step into the canter.
1. Inside leg at the girth
The inside leg must stay at the girth. This leg might not have to do much in terms of squeezing at the calf but it is important in case the horse falls in on the inside shoulder. Many horses will lean into a turn or come off the straight line when they move into the canter, and the inside leg is the aid that helps keep the horse straight through the transition.
Put pressure with the lower leg and calf if your horse falls in. Wait for the horse to straighten up before you apply the outside leg, even if it takes a few strides before he's ready. If he doesn't fall in, you can apply both legs almost simultaneously (inside leg should go first though).
2. Outside leg behind the girth
I call this the "windshield wiper" leg. If you can free your leg at the knees, you can "swoosh" your lower leg back behind the girth, and basically teach the horse to take that first step with the outside hind leg as you swing your leg back. Please note that the leg doesn't have to stay far back behind the girth, though it should be positioned a little further back than the inside leg to be effective in keeping the hip straight and asking for the correct lead.
In general, you shouldn't have to apply a lot of pressure with the outside leg.
Well, I'd be remiss to not mention the seat here, even though I know I'm focusing on the leg aids.
The seat really is THE aid that indicates the gait change. In other words, your legs position the horse's body so he doesn't swing in with the shoulders, or swing out with the hips... but really, it's the seat that indicates the canter.
Just to keep it short - you position yourself so you are sitting tall on the inside seat bone, and you switch your seat rhythm from the trot to the canter. You can sit the last few trot steps so you can be in the saddle for the transition.
Notice that I didn't mention a kick in any of the aids.
Sometimes I get questions about why I don't want to kick into the transition, and I realize it might be a little controversial for me to say this. However, in theory, the strike off for the canter does not need the rider to bang the horse on the sides and throw her weight forward (or fall behind backward). In fact, the quieter you can be, the better it is for the horse (and invariably, for you as you negotiate the balance change into the canter).
If your horse absolutely won't canter without a kick, then yes, go to the kick. But I encourage riders to work toward first positioning the legs as above, second exaggerating the windshield wiper outside leg, third changing the seat to a canter movement, and FOURTH - kicking with both legs. Then work toward weaning your horse off that kick, and become quieter in your position.
The Upper Body
The idea is to not fall forward or backward through the transition. Many of us want to collapse forward in attempt to encourage the horse to "go forward" - but changing from the trot (or walk) to canter is not really going forward at all.
In fact, it's more about changing the horse's legs. It's not about going faster, or getting longer in the body, or pulling on the horse to keep him shorter, or anything at all. There should really be no change (in our dreams!) other than the legs going from the two-beat trot, to the three-beat canter with an easily heard moment of suspension.
Ideally, the first step in the canter should be bold and strong, but not runaway. The next steps should be the same. You should clearly hear the three-beat rhythm of the footfalls. The canter should be round (not flat), ground-covering (not fast) and consistent (not slow down-speed up - slow down - speed up).
This article is about the legs, so I won't go much into the hands except to say that they really shouldn't do much. 🙂
Ideally, they'd maintain the horse's flexion and bend. The rein might need to be shortened a little (an inch or so) if the reins were long-ish at the trot. Otherwise, there's little to do other than not interfere.
For a more advanced description of all the aids, check out the 7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition.
Now that I've shared my version of the leg aids for canter, I'd love to hear yours. What problems have you had with the transition to canter? What solutions have you found over the years? Share in the comments below.
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What Do Leg Aids Mean? Instead of relying on them only to get the horse to move his legs faster or transition to a new gait, we might discover more involved messages that can be given with a sophisticated leg aid.
Stop Kicking the Horse! Kicking your horse only stuns, disturbs, imbalances, and hurts. Once you have better balance in your seat and a more consistent contact with the bit, aim toward using your legs with more purpose.
6 Ways to Unleash the Power of Your Riding Seat: As you become more subtle in the aiding process, you will begin to discover just how powerful the seat can be in guiding the horse without disturbing and interfering in his movement.
Use the “Canter-Trot” to Truly Engage the Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement – but there is nothing further than the truth!
7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition: Much more detailed description for advanced canter transitions.