Do you have trouble getting the "correct" lead when striking off into canter? You might be new to riding, or your horse might be young or uneducated. In either case, it helps a lot if you know different ways to encourage the horse to strike off in the correct lead.
It's About Balance
Lead problems stem from one main cause. If the horse is unbalanced, he will have more trouble picking up his lead regardless of how athletic he may be. Lack of balance can happen in many ways. The horse might be heavy on the forehand, and instead of changing gait to canter, he only runs faster and faster into a bigger and more scrambled trot.
He may bulge one shoulder or the other rather than step underneath with the hind legs. This will result in sideways movement (either into the middle of the ring, or out toward the rail) when you ask for the canter. He'll likely stay in the trot because of the misalignment of his body.
He may resist moving forward when you apply your aids. You might get tail swishing, a hop from the hind end, or a slowing down in the trot as he braces with his front legs. This may be caused by a true discomfort (tack?) or physical problem, so do get it checked out if it happens often. Otherwise, it might just be confusion.
Regardless of why your horse is struggling, the key here is for you to maintain or resume balance even while you are working on getting the canter lead. The first fix is to try coming back to a controlled, rhythmical trot before you try again.
However, in some cases, slowing down to re-balance may not be enough. You might need to exaggerate your aids to help the horse realize how to take a lead in the first place. The following five suggestions should give you a starting point. We'll start from basic preparation to more advanced.
Outside flexion, outside leg
This is the most elementary way to get an inside lead, mainly because you're going to set the horse up to essentially fall into position for the lead. Use this for the young horse just beginning to canter, or for a horse that is very crooked to the inside (maybe he swings his hip to the inside during the up transition).
Use your outside rein to ask for outside flexion (you should see the corner of the horse's eye toward the rail). Use the outside leg as you normally would, swinging back in a windshield wiper motion just in the moment of the down stride.
Have a soft inside rein so you don't inadvertently pull the horse's head to the inside at this moment. You can always bring the horse's flexion back to the inside after you get the lead.
Inside flexion, inside leg to outside leg
This is a little more balanced and therefore a little more difficult. This time, ask for the horse to look to the inside of the ring (inside flexion). Use your inside leg to stabilize the horse while still in the trot. Then ask for the canter with your outside leg.
Your inside leg helps the horse maintain better balance just before the strike off.
On a turn
It's usually easier for a horse to take the correct lead if he can step into a turn or circle in the same direction. So if you want the right lead, ask for the lead while turning right. See if this helps.
On a straight line
It is usually more difficult to get the correct lead while moving straight, but it might help some horses keep their balance while transitioning. In this case, you will support the horse so that he doesn't lean or fall one direction or the other, and only ask once you feel he is moving straight comfortably. He should be familiar enough with leads at this point so that he can respond to your outside leg aid.
From the walk
This is most difficult for some horses, but it can be helpful to not be running off in the trot in the first place.
In this case, get a good walk, and ask for the canter transition straight out of the walk. If your horse trots a few steps before the canter, just ride it and let him. The difference with this trot is that it is fairly controlled because it's coming out of the walk. Just starting from the walk might be all the help he needs.
Regardless of the strategy you use, be sure that you are still riding on your inside seat bone through the transition. If you have fallen to the outside, you will invariably be encouraging the horse to step under you - which means he will pick up his outside lead.
Stay consistent in your expectation to keep a controlled, rhythmical trot before each transition. If the trot gets faster, just break to a walk, regroup, and re-establish the balanced trot. A scrambling trot will never end up in a good canter.
Initially, accept any attempts at the canter. Avoid pulling back on the bit or losing your own balance through the transition, as this will further disrupt the horse's balance. Just sit well, ride whatever you get, and encourage, encourage and encourage.
Finally, remember that these are all "corrections". In other words, you won't be using these strategies forever to get your lead. Once your horse becomes more aware of his canter leads and accurately responds, you will go back to quiet aids to encourage a balanced, straight, calm transition.
What do you do to get your horse's lead? Let us know if you have a different strategy, or if you tried one of the above.
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More related reading here:
Bold Transitions That Look Effortless And Feel Great: This one is good for the horses that tend to "suck back" before transitions and/or "run out" after the transitions.
Focus On Transitions - Week 3: A Practice Session exercise with non-progressive transitions (specifically walk/canter/walk) and a walk/canter straight line transition.
Why Boring Is Beautiful In Horseback Riding: This is the kind of boring that excites the educated observer.
How You Know You Don't Have Impulsion (Yet): This concept of increased energy is complex and it may take years to truly grasp as you progress in your riding career.
18 Reasons To Establish "Forward" Energy: Riding forward is often an elusive concept when you're first learning to ride. It requires an increase in energy but paradoxically, the energy can't be let "out the front".