Your horse is moving beautifully, everything is going great, and you’re sure you’re going to get your best dressage score ever. Then your horse picks up the wrong canter lead!
Teaching your horse to pick up the correct canter lead is something many riders struggle with. A wrong canter strike-off in a dressage test is an expensive mistake that reflects in the collective mark for submission, as well as in the mark for the movement itself.
In this article, we look at how to get your horse to canter on the correct leg every time!
What is the correct canter lead?
The concept of what constitutes the correct canter lead is pretty straightforward. When the horse is cantering on the correct lead, he begins every stride with his outside hind leg and ends it with the inside foreleg.
When your horse is cantering on the correct lead, you should see the horse’s inside shoulder coming forward with each stride, and the horse will be flexed slightly toward the inside. The inside foreleg is referred to as the “leading leg.”
In the counter-canter, the outside shoulder comes forward first, and the horse is flexed toward the leading leg, which in this case, is the outside foreleg.
Why does your horse pick up the wrong canter lead?
Before we talk about how to get your horse to pick up the correct canter lead, let’s look at why the mistake happens in the first place.
Horses naturally seek to canter on the correct lead, simply because it helps them to keep their balance.
Watch your horse playing in the field, especially as he negotiates a turn or curve. The horse’s outside foreleg in the canter stride resists the centrifugal force that brings the horse around the outside of the turn, helping to keep him balanced and on an even keel.
So, you will see that most times, the horse will choose to pick up the correct lead when he’s cantering through turns.
If the horse wants to change direction quickly, he will automatically correct his canter lead so that he’s effectively cantering with the correct leg leading.
Even under saddle, most young horses will correct themselves to keep from losing balance in the canter.
A horse who consistently picks up the incorrect canter lead or resists cantering on a specific lead often has a physiological reason for doing so.
Lead issues could result from stiffness, pain, or discomfort anywhere in the horse’s back, body, or legs. Often, the horse will not appear to be lame in trot or walk, and he may also be able to canter on the correct lead without the weight of a rider on his back.
Also, lead problems can indicate some form of malfunction in the horse’s neurological system.
So, if your horse is having lead problems, ask your vet and farrier to check the horse first, before you begin trying to correct the issue through training.
Usually, if there’s nothing physically wrong with the horse, canter lead problems start when a rider is added to the mix.
How to teach your horse to canter on the correct leg
There are several exercises that are extremely helpful in teaching your horse to canter on the correct leg.
This first exercise is done in the walk and is a brilliant way of improving rider coordination.
Remember to ride the whole exercise in the walk. Don’t move into canter yet; this exercise is designed to make sure that you understand how and when to use the canter aids.
To pick up left canter:
- Drop your weight into your left seat bone.
- Gently flex the horse to the left.
- Keep a contact on your right rein (outside rein) to prevent the horse’s neck from bending too much to the left. You should just be able to see the horse’s inside eye, not the whole side of his face.
- Your left leg is on the girth, asking the horse to pick up the canter.
- Your right leg should be slightly behind the girth, asking the horse’s right hind leg to strike off into left canter. (Note that the horse must begin the canter stride with his outside hind leg so that he finishes up on the correct lead.)
- Keep this “left canter lead” position for a few walk steps and then change your aids as if you were asking for the right lead canter.
This next exercise utilizes the aids you learned in the walk. But this time, you’re going to ride the exercise in trot, and then ask the horse to canter.
- Position the horse slightly to the inside, as you did in the walk exercise above. Keep your outside rein secure to prevent the horse from drifting out through his shoulder.
- When you ask the horse to canter, push forward with your inside seat bone toward the horse’s inside ear.
- Use a small squeeze with your inside leg on the girth to ask the horse to go forward into canter.
- Use your outside leg a couple of inches behind the girth to tell the horse to strike-off into canter with his outside hind leg.
Are you on the correct lead?
Eventually, you should be able to feel when your horse is on the correct lead. However, at first, you may need to take a peek.
Keep your head up and your shoulders back, being careful not to tip forward. Glance down quickly at the horse’s front legs. If you’re on the correct lead, the inside front leg will come further forward than the outside front leg.
Now, take up a circle. If your horse is cantering on the correct lead, the canter will feel smooth and nicely balanced. If the horse is on the wrong lead, the canter will feel uncomfortable and unbalanced.
Problem #1 – Not enough bend toward the leading leg
If your horse picks up the wrong lead, it’s possible that you didn’t keep the inside bend through the horse’s body and the inside flexion at his poll during the transition. As a general rule, the horse will pick up whatever canter lead he is bent and flexed toward.
Correct the problem as follows, using either of these techniques:
- Ride a small circle to establish the correct bend. Just before you end the circle, keep the bend, and then ask for the canter transition. As soon as the horse picks up canter on the correct lead, reward him by moving him out onto a larger circle.
- Walk or trot around a small circle. Leg-yield out onto a larger circle. Use your inside leg on the girth during the leg-yield to help keep the bend. When riding a circle to the right, picture yourself pushing your horse’s rib cage to the left, while keeping his neck and hindquarters to the right.
Problem #2 – Too much neck bend
A uniform bend throughout the horse’s body will encourage him to step underneath himself with his inside hind leg, improving his balance, and making it easier for him to strike off on the correct leading leg.
However, a common rider fault is to ask for too much neck bend, allowing the horse to fall out through the shoulder. When that happens, the horse will drift sideways when you ask him to canter and will probably either stay in trot or strike off on the incorrect leg, because of the misalignment of his body.
Problem #3 – Unbalanced, hurried trot
If the horse is allowed to become unbalanced and run onto his forehand in the trot, he will most likely trot faster and faster, rather than transitioning into canter.
So, steady the trot tempo and use your half-halts to bring the horse’s balance back onto his hindquarters before asking him to canter.
Problem #4 – Unbalanced rider
Sometimes, the rider unbalances the horse by tipping forward as they ask for canter. The horse responds by falling randomly into canter to save himself and his rider from stumbling, often resulting in an incorrect strike-off.
As you apply the canter aids, sit up straight and look forward, not down at the ground.
Having your horse habitually pick up the wrong canter lead is so frustrating, and such an error will lose you lots of marks in a dressage test.
If the problem is persistent or suddenly manifests itself, always have your horse checked over by your vet or farrier to make sure that there’s no physiological cause.
Once your horse has been given the all-clear, you can focus on teaching him how to canter on the correct leg, using the exercises and techniques we’ve described in this article.
If you have any questions or any other training tips that you would like to share, leave us a comment in the box below.
- How to Ride a Good Trot-Canter Transition
- How to Ride a Good Walk to Canter
- About the Horse’s Canter Gait in Dressage
- How to Get Your Horse to Bend