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Horse won't take left canter lead

From: Jessica

Hi Jessica,

I am new to horse-sense and I just wanted to tell you that I think its great. Now to my question. I have a 10 year old gelding (Windwalker aka Windy) that I use as a pleasure and light show horse and every time I ride him I have to fight to get him into his left lead. He takes the right automatically and he will eventually take the left but only after repeated tries and a lot of arguing about it. There is no physical reason, he has been checked throughly. I have tried many different ways to train him to take the lead, it doesn't help. I even know that it isn't me, I have had every person that I know ride him and he refuses to take it with them too. I can get him to take the left lead if he is in a corner of the arena but on the straight side it takes at least three tries. This is killing us in the show ring and it is very annoying to me. I make it a point to train my horses so they can do everything from either side, so this is the ONLY thing he is one-sided about. Do you have any suggestions for me?

Thanks, Jessica

Hi Jessica! Most horses are one-sided, some more so than others. Most horses find it easier to canter on one particular lead, and sometimes their riders don't know or care that the horse ALWAYS canters on that lead, and they let the horse go right ahead and do what it prefers to do. Then it gets more and more difficult for the horse to canter on the other lead, and THEN you have a big problem. Windy may just be stiff on that side, and be in the habit of cantering on the other lead.

If the vet has told you that there's no problem (feet, joints, back, or anything else) that would cause Windy to favour one lead over the other, and if your saddle isn't digging into him when he canters on the left lead -- if there is really nothing PHYSICAL bothering him, then you can probably re-train him.

Since you don't want to have endless fights with him about this, I suggest that you deal with him exactly as you would deal with a young horse who was just learning to canter under saddle. You don't want to punish Windy for taking the "wrong" lead, you want to set him up and arrange everything so that it will be EASY for him to canter on the left lead, and DIFFICULT for him not to!

Try to work him when you're alone in the arena, and don't ask him to do it if the surface is too deep or wet -- it will make it hard for him to canter. Work him at walk and trot until he is very well warmed up and is calm and listening to you. Then, at one end of the arena, trot on a big circle to the left -- at least a 20m circle -- and when you've completed your first circle, lean forward and very slightly to the inside (this will put your weight onto your inside seatbone, and free Windy's outside hind leg to take that first step of canter). Squeeze him with your legs, look up, and tell him to canter. Repeat the aids every stride, keeping your head up, your seat just out of the saddle, and light contact on the reins. Remember to let your arms move with his head, because he'll need to use it for balance at the canter, just as he does at the walk.

Review your canter aids: 1) soft contact on the inside rein, just tipping his nose slightly to the inside to ask for a little bend -- the bend you already have, since you're on a circle!

2) Steady contact on the outside rein, because it's still keeping him steady as he trots through the circle.

3) Your inside leg acts AT the girth -- keep your straight line through shoulder, hip, and heel -- to send him forward.

4) Your outside (right) leg comes back behind the girth, to ask him to canter on the left lead.

If you don't get the canter, don't let him trot faster and faster until he falls into it -- because even if he falls into a left-lead canter, it won't be a good canter. If he trots faster or takes the wrong lead, ask for a steady, balanced trot, circle again, check your own position and your aids, and ask for the canter again.

This usually works very well. If it doesn't, there are other things you can try -- one is to carry a whip in your outside hand. When you are ready to ask for that left-lead canter (again, trot the circle first), reach back with your right hand -- and the whip -- and smack him just behind the saddle when he's on his outside foreleg and inside hind leg in trot. His next trot step will be on the inside foreleg and outside hind leg, and the whip will encourage him to use that outside hind leg to reach up under himself and take that first step of a left-lead canter.

Another method that works well is this: if you have hexagonal or octagonal jumping poles (NOT round ones, they're too dangerous!), set up a tiny jump that will be across the path of your circle as you come through the corner of the arena. Set it very low, with the outside end of the pole on the ground, and the inside end of the pole about two feet off the ground. Then trot your circle, incorporating the pole, and asking for the canter as Windy hops over the pole. Just use your normal canter aids, and put a little extra weight in your inside stirrup. Windy should land cantering on his left lead. If he does, let him keep cantering, and tell him what a wonderful clever horse he is. If he doesn't, bring him calmly back to trot and try again.

If he tries to canter on the right lead, it means that he'll have to take that first canter step with his left hind leg, and since the pole is higher on that side, he will probably bang the leg. If Windy is a smart horse, you won't have to do anything more than ride him through this a few times and ask for the left-lead canter as he comes over the pole. He'll figure it out, and you won't have to get out of position while he teaches himself to listen to you.

And of course, the SECOND he does it right, drop the reins, tell him he's wonderful, and put him away. DON'T try to "confirm it" by asking him again and again -- let him sleep on it. The last thing you do with a horse in any schooling session is the thing that he will remember the best, because it got the best reaction from the rider -- quitting time! He'll remember that, and he'll do it better next time.

After a few days with the little jump, you should be able to use just the pole on the ground, and a week later, you should be able to ask for, and get, your left-lead canter without the pole.

Good luck!

- Jessica

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