Question: I have a hard time getting my horse to pick up his left lead on straightaways. He often picks up his right lead instead. I’m much better at getting the left lead on turns and circles. What am I doing wrong on straightaways?
Answer: Having trouble picking up one lead is very common, especially with young horses and off-the-track Thoroughbreds. Sometimes it’s caused by a physical weakness; in other cases, it’s just a habit. Riders can contribute to the problem by allowing their horses to lean on the inside rein and leg or by pulling on the inside rein, making the horses pop out their outside shoulders, which makes them more likely to pick up the wrong lead.
Riders also tend to overcomplicate the situation by constantly changing their canter aids in an attempt to get the correct lead. This inconsistency confuses horses, making them even less likely to respond properly to the correct aids in the future.
It’s important to address this problem immediately as it can lead to other problems down the road. Don’t be tempted to cut corners in this aspect of your horse’s training.
Start by strengthening his weak lead when you’re not in the saddle. Practice asking him to pick up the left lead on the longe line or in a roundpen. (If you have access to a Pessoa training system and know how to use it properly, longeing your horse in it can be helpful during this phase as well.) Every time he picks up the correct lead, give him plenty of praise. Let him canter a few times around the circle until he seems comfortable, then bring him back to trot before he’s tempted to break to trot on his own.
Also ride more outside the ring where your horse may feel more relaxed. Some horses associate ring work with mental pressure. If you have access to an open field with a gentle hill, practice trotting and cantering up the hill. Do plenty of transitions, but don’t push him to pick up a particular lead. Instead, simply ask him to go forward and see if he volunteers the left lead on his own. Whenever he does, praise him.
Meanwhile, practice moving him away from your left aids in your flatwork. Think of his body having four corners: the right shoulder, left shoulder, right hindquarter and left hindquarter. For his left shoulder to reach forward in a left-lead canter, he needs to have the least amount of weight on that “corner.” In your walk and trot work, think of moving him over slightly from your inside leg to your outside rein. Also practice leg-yields from the quarterline to the rail in both directions.
It may take days, weeks or even months for your horse to learn to move off your inside aids. When he does, try the canter on the straightaway again, keeping your aids simple and clear. Begin at the trot tracking right, then make a transition to walk and go across the diagonal. Take a moment to focus on your horse’s four corners and check that his body is absolutely straight. While still walking straight on the diagonal, drop your left hip downward a little so you feel more weight and strength in your inside seat bone. Add more inside (left) leg to push him toward your outside rein. Check that your hands are high enough to make a straight line from your elbows to his mouth.
Next, do a slight leg-yield off your left leg to get him to shift his weight to the outside. When he does, transfer your own weight to your outside (right) seat bone, slide your right leg back a few inches on his side and squeeze it to ask for the canter, which will help ask him to correctly strikeoff with his outside (right) hind leg. At the same time, use your right rein to take his head a little to the right to keep his right shoulder from popping out.
If he doesn’t pick up the left lead right away, don’t get frustrated—and don’t give in and turn him on a circle to get the lead. It will take time for him to develop the strength and understanding to pick it up reliably, but this is an important skill that he must master. Try again on the next straightaway, applying the exact same aids. The moment he does get the correct lead, give him plenty of praise. With patience and consistency, he’ll learn to do it every time.
Hunter/jumper rider and trainer Sloane Coles grew up foxhunting with her family and the Orange County Hounds in The Plains, Virginia. As a Junior, she achieved many top placings in equitation finals, including a win in the 2006 North American Equitation Championship and second place in both the 2005 Washington International Horse Show Equitation Classic Final and the 2005 USEF National Hunt Seat Medal Final. Drawing on her training with John and Beezie Madden, Mark Leone and Belgian Olympian François Mathy, Sloane went on to succeed in both the hunter and jumper rings. Last year, she won ribbons with Esprit in many major grands prix and finished third with Autumn Rhythm in the $25,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at Devon, among other accomplishments. In the meantime, she has developed an active sales and training business, Springledge LLC, based in The Plains, Virginia. Springledge also includes a horse-retirement division, offering retirees 450 acres of lush pasture to enjoy through their golden years.
This article was originally published in the July 2017 issue of Practical Horseman.