My Horse Consistently Breaks Gait From A Lope To A Jog On The Right Lead. Q & A

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Q: My horse consistently breaks gait from a lope to a jog on the right lead. What may be causing this? –Haley White

A: This is an interesting question—and I wish I had a few more details. If the horse only breaks gait on the right lead and not on the left lead, that makes me suspicious that there may be a physical problem. If a horse breaks gait on both leads, that makes me think that the horse is lazy and disobedient.. However, an obedience issue doesn’t usually happen only on one lead.

By and large if you’re cantering and the horse breaks down to the trot, it’s an obedience issue. The horse should not be allowed to choose the speed and direction—that’s the rider’s job. Many riders just re-cue for the canter and don’t admonish the horse when he breaks gait. So the horse doesn’t know that wasn’t right, he just thinks that if he slows down, he’ll get a break then canter again. You have to break that cycle by adding an admonishment to let him know that breaking gait was unacceptable.

Since Haley writes that it’s only the right lead she’s having trouble with, it makes me think that disobedience may not be the only problem and there may also be a physical component. Plus, it seems that the horse will pick up the right lead and just not maintain it, which would be unusual for a horse that is in pain But, the horse may feel some pain on a leg that is prominent when traveling that direction or may lack conditioning and coordination on that side. Think about the motion of the canter: The legs work unevenly at this gait. On the right lead, the left hind and the right foreleg are enduring the most stress. If the horse is picking up the right lead then not wanting to sustain the gait, he may not be conditioned on that side or he may be feeling pain after the initial canter departure.

I wonder if Haley’s horse has an old injury. After an accident, there could be a coordination or a conditioning issue affecting one side for some time. I’d want to see the horse’s movement in the pasture—will he move on both leads without a rider present? That can tell you what the horse’s preferred lead is and if the horse does pick up the right lead, it would be interesting to see if he keeps the right lead on his own.

This could also be a training issue. Team-roping horses always come out of the box on the left lead because they will eventually turn to the left. Racehorses may only pick up the left lead as they always bend around to the left on the track. I find that many horses also prefer the left lead naturally. So if a horse is trained that the right lead is wrong, or if a horse has never been trained to pick up a specific lead, he may just pick the lead he wants. Horses that were trained for the trail often aren’t taught to pick up specific leads—they just canter on their favorite lead. If the horse has never worked his muscles and been conditioned to work on the right lead, it may take some conditioning and riding at a full gallop to help the horse develop strength and balance in that gait.

Keep in mind that the gallop is the natural gait and the canter is the collected, man-made version of the movement. If the horse has never had to hold himself with a rider while cantering to the right, he may be willing to pick up the lead, but may not be conditioned to keep the lead.

All those thoughts considered, this could be a physical issue or a training issue. My gut tells me that we have to rule out pain first. I’d want to have this horse evaluated by an equine chiropractor who is also a veterinarian. I have seen horses that have a rib or spinal issue not want to canter or just seem “off.”

If the horse doesn’t appear lame on one leg, but isn’t moving how he should, a few treatments may help. Starting with this step would rule out the pain. If it still happens after chiropractic treatment and conditioning, it’s time to go back to basic obedience. If you have asked the horse to canter, he should stay in that gait until you give a different cue.

I’m curious to know what Haley finds out. It’s a curious question and one that’s interesting to think about!

–Julie Goodnight
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Cantering Help: Won’t Take Right Lead

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Question Category: Cantering Help

Question: I have a question about my 4 year old paint mare. I have been working with a trainer on and off for almost a year and I cannot get her to pick up her right lead when cantering. She seems to be heavy on her front end. (She will pick her right lead when on a lunge line. Not all of the time.) I’ve been working on a lot of circles and backing up. I use a D Ring snaffle bit. Not sure if I should be using something other than what I have been. When I ask for a lope going to the right I open my right leg and lift on the right rein and ask with my left leg. I have gotten her to pick it up for a stride or 2 and then she will go back to the left lead. Hope this is enough info to go off of and would appreciate any help.

Thanks

Melissa

Answer: Whenever a horse only takes one lead at the canter, you always have to look to a physical first, then to training. If it is the right lead she does not take, then either the right fore or the left hind would be suspicious, because of the foot falls of the canter and the excessive weight put on these legs on the right lead (opposite for left lead). You should rule out any soreness or lameness issues with your vet and possibly with your farrier.

It’s possible that the horse’s unwillingness to take one lead comes from an old injury which is no longer causing any pain but which taught her a long time ago to favor one lead. If a horse is not thoroughly rehabilitated after an injury, she may develop a guarding or favoring on one leg just like humans do.

Sometimes horses become one-leaded simply because of poor training. If the rider only asks for a canter and is not specific about which lead he wants or doesn’t ensure that the horse works equally on both leads, the horse learns to favor one lead. Just like us, horses tend to favor one side over the other and with hit-and-miss training; the horse may learn that the cue to canter means “canter on your favorite lead.”

Two really common instances of this kind of inadequate training may be seen with ranch or trail horses that are ridden out of the arena very early on and trained out on the ranch/trail or roping horses that are always asked to canter on the left lead. Interestingly, off-the-track horses can be problematic for lead cues because they are used to picking which lead they need themselves—left lead around the corners and right lead on the straight-aways. So they are not used to having to think about which lead you want when cued.

Once a current physical problem is ruled out, two things will have to happen in your horses training before he will reliably take the right lead when you ask. First, he will have to be “forced” onto the right lead once in each training session and then cantered on that lead for as long as he can take it so that he gets stronger on the weak lead. This may require weeks of conditioning and it will take considerable skill and patience on the part of the rider to get him on that lead.

In the beginning, the rider may have to hold the horse in the lead with an exaggerated outside leg holding the horse’s hip to the inside and the riders weight off the back and off the inside. You will have to let the horse gallop faster than normal as he reconditions and re-coordinates on that lead.

Gradually as the horse becomes more conditioned on the right lead it should be easier and easier to cue for it. The rider has to make sure the cue for each lead is different and clear. You need to have considerable control over the horse’s haunches, to position her “haunches-in” when you ask for the canter and you will have to be able to lift the horse’s inside shoulder. A regular D-ring snaffle would not be my first choice for a bit, but I’ll save that topic for another Q&A. In the meantime, you can find out more about the bits I use most often at www.juliegoodnight.com/myler.
On my video about the canter, lead problems are addressed and a series of training exercises are shown that will help you get the horse on the right lead (or left lead, whichever the case may be). It is volume 4 in my riding series, called Canter with Confidence and it covers everything from footfalls, to cueing and riding the canter, to lead problems to flying lead changes.

It is not a simple or easy process to fix a one-leaded horse, but it can be done. Certainly the video will help and there are some articles in my Training Library that may help you clarify your canter cue.

Good luck!

Julie

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