You are cantering on the correct lead along the long side of the arena or approaching a jump when your horse suddenly changes leads. If you’re riding a dressage test or competing in an equitation or hunter class, this unwanted swap will decrease your score. Why do some horses randomly change leads?
The canter (a three-beat gait) is initiated by the horse pushing off with the outside hind leg. Next, the inside hind and outside front legs move forward together. Finally, the inside front leg moves forward. It’s important to understand that ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ refer to the horse’s bend. So, if you are traveling on the right rein and the horse has a true right bend, then right is inside and left is outside. It is the left hind leg that pushes into the canter transition. To maintain this canter lead, the horse must stay balanced longitudinally (from back to front) as well as laterally.
Horses, just like us, are stronger and suppler on one side than the other. Your horse may bend better on one side than the other. He may find it more difficult to travel straight in one direction, so that his hind feet track directly behind his front feet. Your horse may swap leads if you find a long distance to a jump because he prefers to take-off from his stronger side.
Your horse’s balance is affected by your balance, tension and position. And some horses are so sensitive that even subtle changes in the rider affect their balance. If you get a little bit crooked in the saddle or turn your body in anticipation of the new direction you’ll be taking after a jump on the diagonal, your sensitive horse responds to the change in your position by swapping his lead.
Assuming there is no physical problem (i.e. sore muscles, joints, chiropractic or tack fit issues, etc.), then your horse may be swapping leads because:
- He prefers to take-off from his stronger side when jumping.
- He is changing his balance to stay in sync with you.
- You are inadvertently giving him cues to change his lead.
If your horse prefers to canter on one lead, even when he is loose, then have him examined by your veterinarian or chiropractor to eliminate the possibility of a physical issue being the cause.
What can I do to prevent unwanted lead swaps?
Set two poles on a circle so they are equal distance from each other and you can fit in an equal number of canter strides between in each. For example, canter four strides – pole – canter four strides – pole. Starting on the lead that is easiest for you and your horse, establish a steady, consistent rhythm in a working canter. Keep your horse bent around your inside leg.
On the down beat of the canter, gently squeeze your inside calf just behind the girth to encourage your horse to stay bent. This beat happens when your horse’s inside hind leg is reaching forward and his barrel is swinging outwards. If you can’t feel the down beat, look for the outside front leg coming forward.
Keep both reins even so that your horse’s nose stays lined up with the centre of his chest. Bring your outside shoulder back slightly to support his outside shoulder with the outside rein. Keep your hands even with each other just over his shoulders.
Feel where your horse’s haunches are in relation to his front end. They should track directly behind his front feet. If you cannot feel his haunches, have someone watch and tell you what he is doing. If his hindquarters are falling out of the circle, bring your outside leg back slightly to push them in. Once his hindquarters are straightened, bring your leg back underneath your hip.
Depending on the size of arena you have to work in, set one pole on the outside track and one pole either on the quarter line or the opposite long side. You want to have enough distance between the poles so you can straighten the sides of the circle and ride it as an oval shape. The exercise is the same as noted earlier, but now you will approach the poles from a straight line rather than off the circle. When you straighten to approach the pole, keep your centre (your spine/navel) aimed between your horse’s ears. Support his bend, outside hip and outside shoulder the same as you did on the circle. Doing a small leg yield as you ride the straight side will help to keep your horse slightly bent around your inside leg.
When you and your horse are both comfortable and consistently holding the correct lead, increase the challenge by raising one or both of the poles (for jumpers) or using a cavaletti and then a small vertical.