If you glance down from the saddle during the canter, your horse looks as if he's "leading" with one foreleg. One foreleg will appear to lead off or extend further than the other. Equestrians call this the lead, and a horse is either on left or right lead depending on which leg appears to be extending. If you're cantering in a straight line, whether your horse moves off on the right or left lead doesn't matter quite as much as if you're cantering in a circle. Anytime you plan to move in a circle, your horse should be on the lead moving in the direction of the bend. The correct lead will help your horse balance more easily, which in turn will help you ride more effectively.
For many beginning riders, however, asking for and getting the correct lead during schooling sessions is challenging. Their horses refuse to canter, or they pick up the wrong lead. While your horse may simply favor one lead or another, most of the time the problem stems from the cues you're giving your horse when you ask for the canter. When your signals and cues are clear, your horse can easily understand what you want him to do. Correcting and improving your cues when asking for a canter can help you ask for and get the correct lead every time.
The Canter Explained
The canter is a three-beat gait. The horse actually starts the canter not on the front leg that you can see, but with one of his hind legs. Experienced riders learn to feel this transitional beat and to feel the correct lead without having to peek at the front foreleg. The movement feels like a rocking in the hips, with one hip rocking forward just slightly more into the lead. When you're just starting out, however, it's perfectly fine to drop your gaze for a second or two to ascertain which lead you're on.
The first canter step is a driving step coming from the outside hind leg. Then the inside hind and outside front hooves strike the ground simultaneously. The gait finished with the inside front hoof striking the ground, completing the third beat of the one-two-three movement.
Asking for a Lead: Cue the Canter Correctly
You can ask your horse to canter from a halt, a walk, a posting trot or a sitting trot. Most beginners learn to canter from a sitting trot, so be sure you can sit the trot confidently before attempting a canter. Flopping around or losing your balance at the sitting trot puts you in a precarious positions and makes your canter cues vague, which in turn can confuse your horse.
From the sitting trot, English riders ask for a canter by slightly drawing back the inside rein and keeping a steady rein on the outside hand. Simultaneously, the outside leg moves back, with a light squeeze of the calf or touch of the heel behind the girth on the outside. The rider's weight shifts to the outside seat bone while the inside leg remains firm, guiding the horse out to the rail. The horse should pick up the canter on the correct lead almost immediately, within a few beats. If not, sit back down, move your aids back to the sitting trot, and repeat. For a right lead, the rider's left leg moves behind the girth and the inside or right hand draws back slightly. For the left lead, the rider's right leg moves behind the girth, with the inside hand being the left hand.
What if you carry a crop? What do you do with it? If you need to reinforce your aids with your crop, hold it in your outside hand and gently tap behind the girth when you squeeze with your calf. Some horses are trained to respond to a tap on the inside shoulder. You may need to experiment a bit to see which method works best for your horse, or work with a trainer to help you incorporate artificial aids.
What to Do if You Get the Wrong Lead
If after asking for the canter you glance down and realize you have the wrong lead, it's important to regroup and change leads quickly. Sit squarely and draw your horse back into the trot; ask for the correct lead again, trying to be as precise as you can with your seat, leg and hand aids. If your horse picks up the correct lead on the second try, praise him, canter, then return to the walk or trot and try again to make sure he understands the cues. If your horse still doesn't get the right lead, try again in the opposite direction. Some horses may be so unbalanced that they can only pick up one lead rather than either lead with ease. In this case, you may need to work with your horse to improve his balance at the walk and trot before attempting to canter again.
Exercises at the Canter
Once you feel confident that you can ask for and get the correct lead in either direction, make changing leads fun! Ride your horse clockwise around the ring on the right lead, and then ride a diagonal, asking for a change of lead at the sitting trot. These exercises can help you both stay on your toes (or hooves) and have fun during training sessions.
Achieving the correct lead takes time and effort, but making sure you are on the correct lead ensures both your safety and your horse's safety. Keep working at it, and when in doubt, ask your trainer for help.
PHOTO CREDIT: Morguefile. Photographer: Jade.