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How to Teach a Horse to Pick up the Correct Lead

Canter transitions can sometimes be tricky for even skilled riders. When we talk about picking up the correct lead, we tend to think of it much as we think of a “trick” or simple trained behavior, rather than a complex interplay of training, balance, and timing. Actually, getting your horse to pick up the correct lead as they transition from trot and canter is more like a dance movement- making sure the steps leading up to the transition are balanced, the transition is planned, and the horse is ready. These factors generally are given less attention but, to your horse, matter much more than a cue.

Learning how, as a horse and rider partnership, to catch the right lead every time you transition into a canter can take practice, training, conditioning, and yes just a little bit of luck. With practice, you and your horse can find yourself effortlessly getting the correct lead in every transition.

A horse cantering, with all four legs off the ground.

Start safe.

If you or your horse are inexperienced, consult with a horse trainer (see: tips on finding a horse trainer) or a riding instructor. Trying to train a young or inexperienced horse to pick up the correct lead without lots of experience, yourself, can potentially create more problems while failing to succeed at teaching the horse to pick up the right lead. For successfully getting the right lead consistently, you’ll need to be confident at riding the canter and canter transitions, and relaxed enough to feel your horse’s body and timing.

Every horse is different.

While conditioning and balance can help every horse improve their canter transitions and get the right lead more often, what actually works to teach your horse to pick up the right lead might be very different than what works for another horse. Horses are individuals, with unique bodies. Just like how human athletes may respond differently to different training and coaching methods, your horse may need you, as the rider and handler, to be flexible, adaptive, and willing to experiment with different methods for teaching your horse to pick up the right lead.

Trying several different methods will help ensure that by the time next show season comes around, your horse will be consistent and trustworthy picking up the proper lead both in the show ring and outside of it.

4 Tips for Getting the Right Canter Lead:

1. Keep your cues clear and your corrections consistent

The most important part of horse training is remaining consistent and clearly communicating with your horse. Even if you give technically “wrong” cues, if you work consistently with your horse and always cue, reward, and correct the same way, your horse can learn the desired behavior via your own shared language of cues (although, it should be noted that using nonstandard cues for your horse can actually make a horse harder to sell if you ever need to find the horse a new home).

Most horses are cued to canter by the following sequence of cues from a rider:

1. The rider sits upright and deep in the saddle
2. The rider slides their outside leg back several inches
3. Timed with the stride, the rider slides their pelvis forward and slightly to the inside at the same time that they:
4. Squeeze the horse slightly with the outside leg that is moved back.

Skilled riders time these cues so that the cue to move into a cancer canter is given just before the horse’s outside hind legs strikes the ground.

Clear cues and good timing help a horse have clean transitions with the correct lead picked up every time.

2. Using a horse’s natural bend to get the correct lead

Often, riders getting the wrong lead in canter transition are signaling their horse on a straight line or by riding their horse off balance in such a way that the “wrong” lead is easier and more comfortable for the horse. Although well-trained horses should be able to pick up the proper lead even when traveling in a straight line (although in a true straight line even expertly trained horses need cues from their rider- bending them slightly).

To help make it easier to get the right lead every time you transition into a canter, use the natural energy of a horse traveling in a circle around a rounded corner. As you are teaching your horse to pick up the correct lead, ask for the transition as you round the corner or short end of a riding arena. Giving the cue in this area, the horse is more likely to pick up the proper lead simply because it’s more comfortable to do so.

3. Make rewards big

One of the best ways to let a horse know that they have done the correct behavior is to use big rewards – and the biggest reward for most horses is simply getting to return to a pile of hay in their stall or green grass in the pasture. When you are training something difficult, always end on a good note. When it goes the way you want, pat your horse, praise your horse, and then dismount. Immediately loosen the girth and walk your horse towards the untacking area. A positive attitude and an immediate end to the training session – even if it just started – communicates to your horse that what they did was really, really, really good.

To use this method when working with a horse to pick up the correct lead, start by cueing for canter. If the wrong lead is picked up, immediately transition back down to a trot or walk and try again. If the horse picks up the correct lead on the second try praise the horse loudly, pat their neck while still cantering, and allow the horse to canter a short distance. Then, halt the horse,  immediately dismount, and loosen the girth. It may take a few sessions, but soon your horse will learn to connect that picking up the right lead results in an end to their work.

4. Using poles and jump standards to get the right lead

Although not a solution for beginner riders (who probably shouldn’t be training a horse to pick up their lead in the first place) one way to teach otherwise resistant horses to pick up the correct lead as they transition into a canter is to use poles, cavaletti (raised poles), or small jumps. Some horses will break into canter when trotted over poles, but many will need a small jump to prompt the transition. When horses land after a jump, it’s difficult for their bodies to immediately trot away from the jump, so landing a canter and maintaining that gait for the first few strides is typically very natural for a horse.

Jumping small jumps usually prompts a horse to transition into a canter, often on the correct lead if cued well.

Once a horse consistently picks up the canter over a jump, you can begin adding other cues so that the horse can transition to not needing a jump and only needing the cue to transition into a canter with the right lead.

When the wrong lead may signal a problem

If a horse has trouble getting one particular lead more so than the other, it often indicates that the horse’s body strength is weaker on that side. When you do get the horse to pick up the lead on that side, don’t overwork them.

Try to strike a balance between building muscle without making cantering on a lead painful by overdoing it. Finally, if you’re still having trouble with your horse getting the proper lead, it may be time to consult with a professional horse trainer or even a veterinarian. Horses that refuse to pick up a properly even when ridden well into a canter may be doing so because of pain, muscle disorder, or another issue that is beyond the scope of the average rider to deal with.

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