How to Cue a Horse for the Correct Lead

How to Cue a Horse for the Correct Lead

Here are exercises to ensure you always pick up the correct lead at the canter.

AQHA Professional Horseman Scott Jones demonstrates that learning leads while on a longe line lets the rider, shown here riding a gray English horse, concentrate on the leads while the handler guides the horse (Credit: Abigail Boatwright)

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The American Quarter Horse Journal logo

By AQHA Professional Horseman David Miller with Abigail Boatwright 

Picking up the correct lead at the canter is a key part of mastering the gait. 

The Canter: Explained 

What does it mean to “canter”?

The canter is the horse’s gait one speed faster than a trot. It’s a three-beat gait that usually starts with the outside back leg – the leg closest to the arena rail – followed by the inside hind leg and outside front leg in a diagonal pair, finishing with the front inside leg sweeping forward. 

What is a “lead”?

The lead is determined by the front leg that is sweeping forward last in the canter stride sequence. The horse will stretch that inside front leg and the inside hind leg further forward than the outside legs with each stride. 

How do you tell if a horse is on the correct lead?

You can notice the horse’s lead just from watching which front leg swings forward last and further before the horse repeats the stride. 

The easiest way to find a lead is by looking down at the horse’s shoulders. The shoulder going further forward, the one that is last hitting the ground between each stride, is the lead. 

The “correct” lead is when the horse’s inside front leg is leading first. For example: When the horse is cantering a circle to the right, the horse’s right front leg should be leading first. That means you are on the right lead, which is the correct lead for when your circle is turning to the right.

Why is picking up the correct lead necessary?

  1. The horse’s lead influences its balance and control, especially when you’re turning a corner. If you were on the right lead while turning left, the horse’s left back leg would bear twice as much weight because that is not only his driving leg, but his balancing one as well. So that one leg is bearing the weight of the inside of the turn and bearing the weight of the gait. 

  2. It can be dangerous if you turn a corner too sharply on the wrong lead.

  3. AQHA rules state that riding on the wrong lead can be anything from a major fault – a 10-point deduction – to complete disqualification for riders who fail to pick up the correct lead at all. To excel in AQHA English classes, such as hunt seat equitation, riders need to know their leads without looking down to check – looking down is a minor fault resulting in a five-point deduction. 

  4. Nothing marks you a newbie like riding around on the wrong lead, and it can even be dangerous if you turn too sharply. 

Right Lead vs. Left Lead: Learning Leads

I encourage newer riders to start learning to canter on a longe line. My students typically spend a lot of time at a walk and trot before they ever canter, so they are less likely to hang on the horse’s mouth during transitions. 

When riders feel a bit unsteady, a neck strap is a great tool to keep them from hanging on their reins for balance. 

Beginner Level: Look Down to Find the Lead

It’s best to learn leads while on a longe line to allow riders to focus on what they’re feeling as someone else is guiding the horse. The smaller circle exaggerates the movement of the horse, allowing riders to feel the strides more deeply. It’s a lot easier to feel the correct lead on that smaller circle. 

At this point, when you’re on the longe line and learning leads, don’t be afraid to look down at the horse’s shoulders. The lead is the shoulder going forward, hitting the ground between each stride.

Expert Level: Feel the Lead

While riders can find their leads visually, if they want to excel in the show pen, they must be able to feel what lead they are on without looking down to check. 

How to Pick Up the Correct Lead

Every time you get ready to pick up a canter, go through your departure checklist to cue the horse to canter:

  1. Maintain contact with the horse’s face through your reins.

  2. Make sure his nose is tipped in the direction you want to go.

  3. Close the inside leg and press at the girth.

  4. Bring the outside leg back 2 or 3 inches and add pressure to the rib cage to help keep the correct lead.

  5. Support with your inside leg.

What does the correct lead feel like?

As you sit on your horse at a canter, your body should feel your inside hip – the one on the center of the circle versus the outside – swing up just a little bit higher than your outside hip. That is the signal that you’re on the correct lead. 

Experienced riders can usually tell which lead they’re on as the horse strikes off into the canter, based on his body position. Lots of times, when horses strike off on a lead, they take a slight step to the inside with their haunches and step into that lead, because their outside back leg has to step underneath them to push off. 

How do you correct a horse that’s on the wrong lead?

If you do pick up the wrong lead, break your horse down to the walk and ask for it again. When this happens at a crucial moment, such as during a pattern in a class, I always tell clients to use that experience. Think about what happened to make you get to that mistake. What happened with your horse – where did you fail in the communication department?