If your reasonably well-broke horse won’t pick up the correct lead when you ask him to (and assuming there’s no physical reason for his reluctance), then you’re probably not cueing him properly. My guess is you’re making the common mistake of trying to “tip and drag” your horse onto the correct lead. It generally doesn’t work, and when it does happen to work, it’s ugly.
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I’m going to explain how to position yourself and your horse properly for a balanced, beautiful strike-off at the lope—on the correct lead. With diagrams, I’ll show you the right and wrong ways to set your horse up for the lope transition. With photos, I’ll demonstrate the mistakes you’re probably making, then show you the correct way.
To make use of what I’ll teach you, you need to have certain basics already established with your horse. He needs to flex willingly at the poll, straight back or laterally, when you ask him with the reins. He also needs to move his hindquarters over in response to pressure from your leg. These skills will enable you to properly position his body so a correct lead departure is practically guaranteed.
As you practice what I’m about to teach you, outfit your horse in a snaffle bit for best communication, and work on level ground with good footing for safety’s sake.
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MIND THE BEND
Look at the diagram labeled “Correct Arc.” The horse’s body is arced so his head and his hips are tipped slightly to the inside of the circle. In this position, his outside hind leg will naturally step off into the first beat of the three-beat lope. Next, his other hind leg and the diagonal front leg will come down simultaneously for the second beat. Then, the remaining front leg—the inside leg—will come down for the third beat. Voilá—you’re on the correct lead!
Now, look at the diagram labeled “Incorrect Arc.” This horse is improperly set to lope off, because he’s counter-bent to the circle. I’ll explain how this happens in a moment. Right now, just know that this position makes it hard for your horse to pick up the correct lead in two ways: (1) It causes him to lean on his inside shoulder, which keeps him from lifting that shoulder to free his inside front leg and balance over his hind end; and (2) With his hips to the outside like this, his outside hind leg isn’t positioned to take that first step of the lope stride.
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SET UP FOR SUCCESS
Now, let’s talk about how to get that correctly-arced body position so your horse can easily and smoothly pick up the correct lead.
The right way. After warming your horse up, put him on a large circle at a walk. As you look in the direction you want to go, lift your inside rein several inches directly up. This tips his head to the inside of the circle and “lifts” his inside shoulder, encouraging him to balance himself over his hind end. (I find lifting my hand about six inches adequate to achieve these results, though you may need to experiment with how much is most effective for your horse.) Meanwhile, keep enough pressure on your outside rein to keep him from drifting into the circle or tipping his head too far to the inside.
At the same time, apply pressure with your outside leg several inches behind the cinch to push your horse’s hind end slightly to the inside of the circle. Keep your inside leg at the cinch to encourage the correct bend. If you’ve accomplished all this, your horse should be bent a bit to the inside of the arc of the circle, just like the horse in the “correct” diagram.
LEFT: I’m lifting my inside rein to pick up my mare’s inside shoulder and tip her nose to the inside of the circle. My outside rein is keeping her from bending too far or getting crooked. My outside leg is pushing her hind end in—and look how her outside hind leg is set to make that first step of the lope. All I need to do now is “kiss.”
RIGHT: And here it is—a soft, smooth transition to a beautiful lope, on the correct lead, with the mare flexed at the poll and properly bent on the circle through her body. Remember to always look up in the direction you wish to go; I’m concentrating a bit too much on my demonstration and should be lifting my chin and my eyes a bit.
The wrong way. What you don’t want to do is what riders often do: “throw” your horse into the lope by leaning your body and carrying your hands to the inside of the circle. When you do this, your outside rein winds up tightening too much across your horse’s neck, so you actually tip his head to the outside—the opposite of what you want. Also, you’re enabling your horse to dive onto his inside shoulder, rather than lifting his shoulders, as you need him to.
Plus, your own tipped position in the saddle means you’re essentially putting your inside leg on your horse and taking your outside leg off—again, the opposite of what you want. As a result, his hind end cants to the outside, making it harder for his outside hind leg to get that first lope step.
All told, positioned like this, it’s actually easier for your horse to pick up the wrong lead than to get the right one.
LEFT: To demonstrate what not to do, I’m leaning and carrying my hands to the inside, trying to “throw” my mare onto the left lead. I’ve actually tipped her head to the outside of the circle, and my outside leg is off her side—both exactly wrong for cueing the lope.
RIGHT:And here’s the result: My mare, still bent to the outside, is bracing against my hand and loping on the wrong lead (her outside foreleg is about to come down in the third beat of the lope). She’s not happy with me, either—note her ears and the expression on her face.
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As you practice, be sure to work equally in both directions. (If need be, give a bit more emphasis to your horse’s weaker lead until he’s equally fluid with both.) As your horse gets better at it, practice making your cueing more subtle and smoother over time.