Teaching a young horse to canter on the correct lead can be extremely frustrating and confusing for both parties and sometimes the problem of the 'wrong leg' persists long after you have passed the baby stage in your horse's training. In fact, most riders will tell you that their horse is either left or right-hoofed and favours one lead over the other. It is a common problem with a common cause; the rider!
So, what do you do when your horse strikes off on the wrong canter lead?
Turn your horse's head to the inside and lean inwards:
This is actually a hindrance to your horse rather than a help. If you were negotiating a corner with a heavy rucksack strapped to one side of your body, you'd have to throw your balance onto your other leg in order to stay upright wouldn't you? And that's just what your horse will do in order to keep his balance; effectively meaning that he will naturally strike off with his outside foreleg leading.
Use your outside leg more vigorously, further back or tapping your horse up with your whip:
An early lesson young horses are taught is to yield to the rider's leg, i.e. to move away from it. And this is exactly what your well-trained horse will do if you bash him with your outside leg and your whip! He will bend his body away from your outside leg, positioning his head to the outside and will naturally pick up that canter lead.
Be careful too that you don't teach your horse to canter by placing your outside leg too far back. If you do this, how are you going to teach him travers (quarters-in), pirouettes and half-pass? I once had a lesson on a friend's retired Grand Prix dressage horse and every time I asked him for canter, he simply brought his quarters in and set off across the arena in half-pass; which clearly speaks volumes about my canter aids!
Turn your horse on a really tight circle with a pronounced inside bend:
This will just unbalance your horse who will throw his weight to the outside and pick up the wrong lead.
Twist your shoulders and hips to the outside:
When you are preparing for a canter transition on a circle, your shoulders and hips should be turned to the inside. This helps to position your horse's body as he should mirror you. If you twist yourself to the outside, your horse's body will follow yours and he will strike off on the wrong leg.
In order to achieve anything your horse must be balanced and responsive to your aids. Make sure he is relaxed, attentive and nicely in front of your leg. If he is dawdling along gawping over the fence at his chums grazing in the field, you won't get canter at all and almost certainly not on the correct lead!
First of all make him straight on your circle then pick up an inside bend. Make sure that the bend is uniformly through his body and not just through his head and neck. If you have too much neck bend you will find his shoulder sliding out and he will lose balance. Use your outside hand and leg to control the amount of bend you create.
Create plenty of controlled impulsion. This means energy not speed! If you ride plenty of walk/trot/walk transitions this will help to make your horse alert and sharp to your aids and you will quickly find that he is waiting for the next instruction. It will also help if you practice a little bit of sitting trot before you get to teaching canter work. Learning to canter will come as enough of a surprise for your horse without adding sitting trot to the mix at the same time!
Trot a 20m circle and think about your position. Look up and straight ahead between your horse's ears making sure you have your weight on your seat bones and that you're not tipping forward onto your fork. Keep your hips and shoulders in line with the circle, turning your shoulder slightly to the inside. Push your inside seat bone slightly forward. Your outside leg should already be slightly behind the girth to prevent the horse's quarters from swinging out; keep it there.
Ride a couple of sharp trot/walk/trot transitions then ask for canter on the circle. Don't panic if you get an incorrect strike off. Bring the horse quietly back to trot, re-evaluate your own position and try again. When the horse strikes off correctly, make a fuss of him, canter three or four strides then trot, re-balance and organise yourselves and repeat the exercise. As the horse learns the exercise he will begin to anticipate the transition to canter which will make the depart smoother and sharper. At this stage you can make your aids more subtle so that eventually your horse will pop into canter as soon as he feels your inside hip slip forward.
If you find yourself becoming tense, come back to walk and chill out before trying again. If you're uptight and stiff, you will only upset your horse and nothing will be achieved.
Of course, if the wrong strike offs persist or the horse becomes upset and tense on one particular rein, I would recommend having his back checked out by your vet or chiropractor and make sure that his tack is correctly fitted. It may be that there is a physiological reason for the problem.
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