Getting the correct leads

By | October 12, 2019

Story originally posted by: Maggie Flowers

Dear Maggie:

I have a young gelding that goes perfect one direction but not the other. Counter clockwise is his difficult direction. When asking for a lope, I have tried cueing him with the out side leg & rein, I have tried small circles, I have also tried turning is head to the out side and shifting my weight none of these have worked to get him on the correct lead. Do you have any suggestions?


Horses, like most people have dominant sides. Just as a person can be right-handed, a horse can be right-sided. Sometimes, humans can influence this (most race horses are left-sided, because they always race left-handed, for example), but often the horses are simply born this way. This one-sidedness can manifest itself in several ways, but one of the most obvious is a preference for one canter lead.

While the methods you have tried already can be used very successfully to both teach and cue proper leads, they are "tricks" used to create proper body placement in horse and rider. If these methods are not working for you, it means you must abandon the "tricks" and endeavor to find the body placement by plain old feel.

For a horse to pick up the correct lead, it must be shifted onto its hind end, and have the weight off its outside shoulder. When first training the leads, the above mentioned counter bending works because it forces the horse off the outside shoulder and onto the inside hind leg.

Practice starting at the walk. Try to feel when the horse is walking where his front half of his body is in relation to the hind end. Feel the shoulders shifting back and forth, and practice trying to keep the horse straight on the long side of the ring using primarily leg aids (some hand may be necessary, but ultimately you can never hold a horse straight with your hands). Practice bending the horse, a few steps to the inside, a few steps to the outside, aiming to be perfectly straight before, in between and after. Again, be sure you are using more leg than hand.

Be aware of your own body language, that you are sitting straight and tall, not cocked or hunched to one side, and that your body movements, as you change your aids are smooth and subtle, not big and rough. Try not to "shout" at the horse, using strong kicks, when gentle leg pressure would do, or yanking on the mouth when a soft rein aid will work. If your horse doesnât seem to "feel" your softer aids, try carrying a dressage whip, and using it to enhance your leg aids, until the horse responds to the softer aid.

While you are working on all the above, there is one other "trick" you can try. In dressage we often refer to a horse that "jumps" into his canter. Whether you ride dressage or not, keeping this analogy in mind can be helpful. Take a ground pole, flat on the ground, or raised up just enough to get the horse to take a small jump (a few inches off the ground is sufficient). As the horse approaches the pole, get him off his outside shoulder, and apply your aids for canter. As the horse begins to leave the grounds, shift his weight, and give him the strong "CAN-TER" aid. Sometimes the act of getting into the air, even just a little bit, can shift the horseâs body position enough to get the correct lead.

When the horse does get on the correct lead, be sure to do two things: (1) praise lavishly so the horse understands this is the right answer to your question, and (2) be aware that since the horse hasnât cantered much on the difficult lead, his muscles for sustaining it will be weak. It will be to your advantage to practice this lead in short, useful bursts, rather than long sustained trips around the ring.

Good luck!
Maggie Flowers


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