Why won't my horse canter on the correct lead?
If there's one problem that comes up time and time again, it's people telling me that their horse strikes off on one canter lead more easily than the other.
In some cases a horse finds it nigh on impossible to pick up a certain lead, much to their owners frustration. The good news is this is usually an issue which, with correct training, can be overcome. (I guess my caveat here would have to be that if this problem has occurred spontaneously or over a short period of time it may not be a training issue. Sudden unwillingness to pick up a certain lead, or switching leads behind whilst cantering, can be indicative of a problem in the hocks such as spavin, and is worthy of further investigation).
A typical presentation is a horse that is unwilling to pick up the left canter lead. Here’s what I commonly see when I watch this horse work: he turns more easily to the left than the right and on a circle or simply going large on the left rein, he may bend his body like a banana to the left. His right shoulder, and the rider's right foot, might bulge put towards the wall, and sometimes the horse may take a while to turn away from the wall, onto the diagonal to change the rein for example, as his shoulder continues to ‘drift’ to the wall. Conversely in the opposite direction the horse may find it difficult to bend around a circle and may tend to cut the corners.
It’s a common sight in young horses, and ones which have had only light schooling. It’s really no more unusual than a person who finds it easier to turn their head one way, or indeed write with one particular hand! Most horses have a dominant, stronger ‘driving’ hind leg, commonly in horses, the left. (Opinions vary on why this is. Is it because horses tend to be led from the left from foalhood? Or does it depend on which direction they're curled up in the womb?). The driving hind leg pushes the horse’s weight away to the right, and often, pushes the rider's weight in that direction too. The hind leg which starts off the canter sequence is the outside one, and in the situation described here, the extra weight makes it very difficult for the right hind to strike off. The relatively unburdened inside hind strikes off the sequence instead, and the horse is on the wrong lead.
I remember clearly being 13 or 14 and utterly unable to get my pony to strike off on the correct left lead. I tried everything I could think of - riding him on a 10m circle for more bend, trying to pick it up from a half 5m circle off the track, putting my outside leg so far back it was practically on his hip. Nothing worked. It wasn't until someone told me to try turning his head to the outside that he struck off on the correct lead. I was amazed! (And rode the poor pony around in outside bend for pretty much ever more….). It was years before I understood the reasoning behind this crude, but effective, tool. Pulling (I know, awful) his head to the outside threw his weight back to the left, freeing up his right hind just enough to strike off.
Perhaps a coach would have advised me to put my own house in order before I started pulling my pony’s head around, but in those days once you had a pony of your own you didn't need lessons any more! I could have concentrated on my own posture, on keeping my weight into the inside seatbone and not collapsing through the left side of my torso. I could have practiced riding straight on an inner track so my pony developed the ability to drive more evenly with his hind legs. I could have ridden lateral exercises to gain control over the outside shoulder, and asked him for a tiny bit of virtually invisible outside flexion when asking for canter. When I eventually did learn all these skills, I felt sorry for my pony, but he’s still on the go at 33 and doesn't seem to bear a grudge!
Even if you only ride once a week, you can still tune in to your own one-sidedness which will help you become aware of your posture on the horse. Take driving a car - I bet very few of us sit in the driver’s seat with equal weight on both sides of our bum. Are you straight through your waist and torso, or is there a slight bend where one shoulder drops down? In almost any situation in everyday life you can have a think about how straight and equally balanced you are - I noticed that when carrying my baby in a baby sling on my chest, I was able to look down to the left to see his little foot, but it was really difficult, almost impossible, to bend round to the right to look at his other foot. Increasing your awareness of your own body will allow you to help rather than hinder your horse if he is experiencing difficulty with his straightness.
PS - there are loads of reasons why a horse may struggle with a certain canter lead - I’ve just described a common one above. An experienced coach will be able to help you identify and resolve your particular issues!