Have you ever asked yourself why it’s important to be on the correct lead? If you show, you know that being on the wrong lead won’t just incur a penalty, but also is likely to be a deal-breaker when it comes to winning or placing in the class. Even if you don’t show but take lessons regularly, your trainer has probably gotten after you for being on the wrong lead from time to time. So what’s the big deal? A lope’s a lope, right?
Wrong. Leads aren’t just about winning in the show pen. They’re also key to your horse’s natural balance when he’s loping. Here, I’m going to teach you how to position yourself and your horse to pick up the correct lead—every time. you can use these tips whether you’re working with a young horse that’s still learning his leads, or have a seasoned horse that’s a little rusty on his leads. We’ll hone in on your position and timing, so that asking for and getting a specific lead eventually will become second nature for you.
To Get the Most Out of This Lesson
• Outfit your horse in the bridle and bit you typically work in, as long as it provides soft contact and easy steering.
• Work in an arena with soft, even footing.
• Consider outfitting your horse in protective boots.
• Make sure your horse is supple and soft in his ribcage and face before you begin practicing leads. After working at the walk and jog for 5 to 10 minutes, ask your horse to do some basic suppling exercises. Work on circles and straight lines, and ask your horse to flex his poll and bend his neck in both directions. You also can practice turns on the forehand and hindquarters, sidepassing, and backing up to encourage suppleness. (For a more detailed review of suppling techniques, see “Both sides Now,” October 2012.)
• Keep in mind that your goal is to practice and perfect your lead departures. As your horse strikes off on the requested lead, it’s not necessary to lope endlessly around the arena. Simply lope for a few minutes, and then return to the walk.
• Finally, if your horse is stronger on one lead than the other, begin and end with that weaker lead, and practice it more. This will help your horse become stronger on his weaker lead and provide him—and you—with more confidence loping in that direction.
Caveat: If you work these exercises correctly, and your horse still refuses to pick up one lead or the other, stop pushing him. He may have an underlying physical problem that could be causing him discomfort on a specific lead. In this instance, consider having your vet give him a thorough examination to rule out unsoundness or injury as the problem
Your own position is key to your horse’s ability to deliver a correct-lead lope departure. If you take the time to perfect small position details in the beginning, getting your leads will be that much easier.
Sit straight and balanced in your saddle, with even pressure in your stirrups. Make sure you’re not leaning in one direction or the other. Allow your legs to hang relaxed at your horse’s sides,
Making sure you’re not pinching with your knees or thighs. And don’t think of your spurs as a power tool to torque your horse into the lope; visualize them as being an extension of your legs—only using them if necessary.
Cueing for the Lead
Here, I’m going to give you the steps for correctly asking for the left lead. Simply reverse these cues for the right lead. Your goal is to pick up the lope from a walk. (Note: If you’re working with a young horse, he may initially jog or trot to “run” into the lead. This is ok for now. As he gains balance, coordination, and strength in his hindquarters, he’ll be able to pick up the lope from the walk.)
Position your horse on a straight line, pick up a walk, and establish contact with your horse’s mouth using both reins. Lift your left hand slightly—while holding your right hand still—and squeeze with your right leg. Don’t bring your leg back behind the cinch; keep your leg straight down, but be sure to squeeze, not tap, so your horse doesn’t think you want him to jog. If he goes into a jog instead of a lope, keep your hands still and continue applying right-leg pressure until he lopes. Once he’s in the lope, maintain slight contact with both legs to encourage him to continue forward.
When asking for a lead—whether it’s right or left—it’s sometimes tempting to lean in the direction of the lead or tip forward. Don’t do it! Riders often lean forward in an effort to “push” their horses into the lead. This is counter-productive, as you’ll simply encourage your horse to lean on his lead shoulder, which he must pick up to step off into the lead.
After you’ve loped for a bit, return to the walk and do this same exercise again. This time, however, select a different place in the arena to begin, so your horse doesn’t think there’s only one spot in the pen where he’s supposed to lope. He should respect your legs and hands wherever you happen to be—in an arena or otherwise.
The Art of the Arc
Once you’ve established a nice, cadenced left-lead lope, direct your horse onto a large circle to the left. Here, you want your horse’s arc to be perfectly aligned with the slight arc of your circle. Some riders are tempted to over-exaggerate their horse’s arc, so their horse is curled to the inside, or is turning like a motorcycle. Your horse’s inside shoulder should be lifted and not leaning to the inside. And make sure you continue to sit straight in your saddle without leaning in the direction of your circle. You’d be amazed how much your balance will help your horses.
After you’ve circled a few times, return to the walk and give your horse a break. Then, practice your right-lead departure by simply reversing the above cues. Use left-leg pressure and slightly lift with your right rein to ask for the lead. Once you’ve practiced on the right lead departure several times, work a circle to the right, again establishing a slight arc in your horse’s body in conjunction with the arc of your circle. Now that you’ve practiced accurate lead departures in both directions, you should be able to lope off on the correct lead— every time.
Carol Metcalf was AQHA’s Horsewoman of the Year in 2000. In addition to numerous AQHA world and reserve world titles in Western pleasure, Western riding, reining, and reined cow horse, she was the 2004 limited open and inter- mediate open NRHA Futurity limited open NRCHA reserve champion—and the 2005 champion, where she rode her own Mr Mini Macho. More recently, at the 2011 APHA World Show, she was in the top 10 in junior and senior reining and the APHA world champion in junior reining on Little Diamond Gunner. She currently coaches youth and amateurs in reining and working cow horse, and owns and operates Metcalf Quarter Horses in Pilot Point, Texas, with her husband, Steven, and son, Carter.