Q: My First Level horse often picks up the wrong lead when on the left rein, even when I ride a circle and try to bend him left before the transition. How can I teach him to pick up the correct canter lead? —Name withheld by request
A: This is a problem that I often see in my own students. I’ll give you some tools to help you teach your horse to take the correct lead.
It is extremely common for riders to try to get their horses to take a specific lead by turning them in the direction of the lead. This is a tactful way of saying that they pull on the inside rein. But unless the rider has control of the horse’s outside shoulder, the result is often not the desired one. The pressure on the inside rein can prevent the horse from bringing his inside hind leg forward. The absence of the outside rein creates an “open door” effect, and the horse will take the line of least resistance. Horses that respond in this way often tend to respond late to the aids or to completely ignore them.
Once you have your horse warmed up, work him on a 20-meter circle in the trot. Stay in posting trot until he is going nicely forward and is through in his body. Make some transitions within the trot to test his reaction to your aids. He should go when you ask that he go and wait when you ask him to wait. When he feels obedient and balanced, sit the trot, but make sure that the quality stays the same. Any transition is only as good as the pace that precedes it.
It’s helpful to work in an arena with a wall or a fence. Once you have established your trot, use the same spot on the wall each time you ask for the canter. To help you keep your horse from running through your aids, I suggest you ask for the canter as you approach the wall. Increase the amount of engagement by pushing your horse a bit more into the bridle. Think of this as asking him to go more forward without covering more ground. The trot must not change tempo or miles per hour, it should just become more powerful. This makes the hind legs more active and therefore more available to you.
Your horse should now be equal in the rein contact, with slight flexion to the inside. Your outside rein allows you to control your horse’s outside shoulder and prevents it from sliding away from the contact with the inside rein.
Your inside leg asks your horse to go forward, and your outside leg is used behind the girth in a sweeping, not pushing, motion. When you give the aid for the canter, your horse should respond immediately. If he runs on in the trot and then falls into canter or takes the wrong lead, correct the miscommunication by stopping him firmly and then trying again. He needs to know that your aids are giving him specific directions, not just asking him to run off. Pay attention to the straightness of the horse, and be critical of his reaction, or lack thereof, to the moment when you give the aid. Lastly, keep your eye on your horse’s outside ear. This last bit assures that you are sitting in the center of your horse and keeping your outside seat bone where it belongs.
Once you have consistent success with this method, ask for the canter transition at other parts of the arena. Eventually, you will be able to ask your horse to take the correct lead wherever you wish.
Madeleine Austin trains dressage horses and riders to Grand Prix. She also breeds Dutch Warmbloods at her farm in Williston, Vermont.