Are you crystal clear on your canter leads? Do you know which one is which and when you need to change leads?
It happens to everyone at some point in their riding journey, horse and human alike.
The whole idea of staying on the "correct" lead is important in riding development. The main reason we worry about leads is to maintain balance, especially on turns and circles. If the horse is on the "incorrect" lead going around a turn, he has to work extra hard to bring his canter stride through each step of the way.
Some horses break to a trot because they simply can't maintain the gait while on the outside lead.
Some horses have an easier time and just keep going, getting more strung out and unbalanced, but somehow sticking with the canter gait despite the imbalance. If your horse is one of these, you might have a harder time figuring out if he's in the correct lead or not.
What Is A Canter Lead?
Simply put, the horse will always "lead" with one hip and shoulder ahead of the other while in canter. So if he is on the "right" lead, his right hip and shoulder will be ahead of the left. We often teach beginner riders to look down at the shoulders to identify which shoulder is leading. Over time, you can learn to feel without looking at all.
Of course, the lead is caused not by the front legs, but by the hind legs. If you break down the canter stride, the outside hind leg is the first strike off leg. So, the left hind leg starts off the sequence of footfalls that allow the right hind leg and the right shoulder to lead. This is why we use our outside leg as the initiator of the canter gait.
Which Lead Is The "Correct" Lead?
If you are going right, the right lead is the "correct" lead. If you're going left, the left lead is "correct".
But here's the thing. I've used quotations on "correct" and "incorrect" because really, those are just definitions of sorts. We define the left lead as "incorrect" when the horse is going right. But it's "correct" when the horse is going left. So it's easy to see that the horse may choose either lead, depending on his balance mostly, unless he is well versed in responding to your aids.
Also, as you both progress, you might one day purposely ask for the "incorrect" lead to get a counter canter. The counter canter is a great exercise in suppleness which helps develop hind end strength and flexibility. It also is a way to demonstrate that both the horse and rider can in fact pick up whichever lead in whichever direction - showing that the horse's balance is good enough to allow for either lead at any time.
So really, the "correct" lead might change meaning over time. But for the purposes of this article, we'll stick with "correct" meaning the same lead as the direction of movement.
What If Things Go Wrong?
As previously mentioned, "incorrect" leads happen all the time, especially during the developing stages of the horse or rider. The gait can be asked for at the wrong moment in time by the rider, and the educated horse will just follow by taking the opposite lead. In this case, the rider has to learn the correct timing of the aid to get the desired canter lead.
Alternately, the horse might be in the learning phases and might not know to respond promptly even if the rider's timing and aids are correct. In this case, he might not recognize the rider's outside leg as asking for the strikeoff, trot through the aid and strike off with the inside hind leg, again causing the counter canter.
*Just as a side note - this is why we often recommend an experienced horse for a beginner rider, and an experienced rider for a young or uneducated horse. It's always easier if one of the two knows what is what! 🙂
Fix The Lead
There is a golden rule to stick to when things get discombobulated.
Secret: Slow down that trot!
Chances are, after you got the wrong lead, your horse eventually broke into an unbalanced trot (or you asked him to go back to the trot). In either case, this trot will likely be fast, on the forehand, and difficult to ride.
Your job at that moment is to be the creator of balance. Keep asking the horse to slow down in that trot. Wait for him to "come back under you" - so that he isn't running out while you just try to hang on. There is no point in asking the horse to try to canter on even while he's barely keeping balance in the trot.
So wait for him. Take your time. Teach him that there's no panic even after that uncomfortable canter thing just happened. It's all good!
But here's the clincher. As soon as he's balanced, calm and ready - go! Be sure your aids are crystal clear - exaggerate the "windshield wiper" action of your outside leg.
If he only speeds up again in the trot, bring him back to that nice, slower tempo. Under all circumstances, don't kick him faster faster and "hope" he canters off. (There is one exception: while training the young horse, you should accept whatever he offers at the very beginning.)
Some horses can in fact canter out of an awkward trot, but invariably, that canter will be similarly hard to maintain. Always balance the trot before asking for the canter again.
Still Taking The Incorrect Lead?
There are several other ways to work on getting the correct lead. We'll look at those ideas in the next article.
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How To Improve YOUR Trot-Canter Transitions: Focusing on what you can do as the rider.
What Are The Leg Aids For Canter?: A discussion about the leg aids in particular.
How To Fine Tune Your Canter-Trot Transitions: This downward transition might take a bit of work to master.
The Benefits Of Cantering Round And Round The Ring: Spending enough time in the canter can truly help develop the gait.
How The "Not Canter" Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Try this one if you need help to get the canter in the first place.