“Cross-canter” is the proper term for what is commonly called “cross-firing” or “disunited” cantering. As opposed to picking up the correct lead, with both front and hind inside legs leading the way, the horse leads with one leg in the front and a different leg with his back legs. The gait is still a canter, but looks awkward when you don’t see the expected footfalls. For the rider, the cross-canter feels very rough—it’s awkward for both horse and rider.
A horse may cross-canter because of a rider’s misplaced balance, because of misunderstanding a cue, or the funky gait may be caused by your horse’s response to pain. If your horse is attempting to avoid or favor one leg, he may move in a cross-canter to avoid the pain. If your horse cross-canters often, have him checked out by a veterinarian and/or equine chiropractor before attempting to change the movement with training. If your horse has a problem with his back or hips, it could be inhibiting the ability to canter correctly.
If a physical problem is ruled out, start working your horse to help him build the muscles he’ll need to canter correctly. The canter should begin with your horse picking up the correct lead with his back legs—so making sure that he has the strength and coordination to push off with his back legs will help. I like to practice haunches-in and leg-yields (also known as two-tracking) to develop strength and coordination. These moves help the horse’s hips develop strength. Visit the free Training Library on my site (http://juliegoodnight.com) as well as http://www.HorseMaster.tv to see clips of shows that help teach these moves. You should work on haunches-in at the walk and trot until you can keep her bent with her haunches-in in both directions.
Once he does well with haunch control, go back to canter work and try to keep his haunches-in while he canters. By keeping his haunches bent slightly to the inside, it keeps more weight on the outside hind so that he has to push off with that leg and so maintains the correct lead. When you begin your canter work, only canter short lengths so that he can maintain the proper stride. Gradually increase the number of strides you ask for as he develops strength to sustain the gait.
Incidentally, I do not like to canter young horses in the round pen or on the longe line (mounted or un-mounted), because they do not have sufficient balance to maintain a proper canter stride in that small a circle, and they invariably cross-canter. If they are allowed to go on and on, you end up conditioning the horse in an impure gait.
Everyone wants to do flying changes because the move is so dramatic and shows off a high level of horsemanship. If you’ve been to a reining event, you know that the crowd hollers and whistles when the horse and rider make a perfect flying change in the exact center of the ring. But while this maneuver looks like one easy move, it’s important for you and your horse to know many small elements before putting them all together to perform one flawless looking flying lead change. Resist the urge to test your horse and to ask for all at once. Instead, make sure that your horse knows how to do everything on this list before attempting a flying change.
The horse begins the canter/lope with his outside hind leg. Thus, when his haunches are to the right, most of his weight comes on the left hind and he strikes off with the right lead. A flying lead change is done by moving the horse’s haunches during the moment of suspension so that he can switch hind legs and change to the other lead. In order for this change to happen at the precise timing, your sequence of cues and the horse’s understanding of exactly where to put each leg must be clear.
Before a rider and horse can properly execute the flying lead change, the following skills must be solid:
1) Thorough understanding of leads and the footfalls of the canter
2) Smooth canter departures from the walk and halt, getting the correct lead 100% of the time
3) Rider being able to feel which lead the horse is on (no looking)
4) Flawless simple lead changes with only one stride of trot, on a straight line
5) Total control of the horse’s haunches; able to walk and trot haunches-in in both directions
6) Able to leg-yield or two-track at walk and trot in both directions
7) Able to sit the canter/lope in a balanced seat and have independent hands and legs
8) Horse can maintain collected canter/lope in frame, going straight
The rough (but commonly used) method of jerking the horse’s head to the new direction throws the horse onto his forehand and may cause a change of the front lead, leaving the horse in a cross-canter. To execute a flying lead change properly, the horse must change from behind first–thus, the need to have total control of the horse’s haunches.
An age-old piece of wisdom says that the best way to improve the canter/lope is to improve the trot. So, as usual, go back to basics and make sure you can perform all of the skills listed at a slow, easy pace. Work on position, use of the aids (more seat-less hands), transitions, haunches-in and knowledge. There are no quick fixes, but being patient with yourself and your horse will pay off big in the long run.