Right Lead, Wrong Lead : A Time and Place for Both

Story and photos by Leslie Desmond Published in the January 1996 issue of The Trail Less Traveled


It is a common mistake to assume that the "right" lead and the "natural" lead are synonymous, and that the "unnatural" lead is automatically "wrong." Whether a lead is right or wrong is a judgment based on what the rider hoped the horse would do when given the feel for a certain lead.

If you prepared your horse to feel for the left lead and he took the right lead instead, it could be the "wrong" lead for you. If the horse could talk, he might tell you that what he gave you was exactly what you asked for.

Have you ever heard a show parent say, "Joyce didn't ask Star to take the lead in a way that enabled her to do it, I hope the judge noticed the good try they both made anyway?" No? The more frequent comment runs something like this: "Of course Joyce didn't place in the class. Star took the wrong lead again! We're looking for a horse she can move up to."

When a rider thinks the horse is prepared to take a certain lead but, instead, he takes the wrong lead, one of two things has happened. He has either missed a correct message from the rider or the rider has given an incorrect message that the horse was unable to interpret. In either case they both deserve a chance to work it out.

The Counter Canter: A Learning Tool

The counter canter refers to the horse's ability to take the unnatural lead. In a circle to the right the horse would counter canter in his left lead, in a circle to the left he'd be on the right lead. When used properly, the counter canter can be a tool to encourage the horse to travel with an improved capacity for straightness, balance and rated cadence or speed.

hrs10 3aCounter canter (unnatural lead) when loping to the left. Horse is on the right lead.         
hrs10 3bCounter canter (unnatural lead) when loping to the right. Horse is on the left lead.

In relation to changes of lead, the counter canter can help the horse develop his ability to stay alert and aligned from nose to tail on the circle and from the ground, straight up. The counter canter also helps the horse think about the speed of his feet in relation to his balance and body position going into and out of a turn. Of equal importance, the counter canter helps the horse feel for a message in the rider's body movement rather than fear and brace against a poorly presented lead change.

The counter canter can be helpful for horses who have learned to:

  1. Dive in or cut corners at the lope.
  2. Speed up through turns or on straight-aways without being asked.
  3. Rush through lead changes.
  4. Change leads with a dropped inside shoulder.

Counter cantering is also helpful when schooling young or troubled horses who haven't yet learned the simultaneous lead change.

It is sometimes difficult for a traditionally schooled horse (one that never fails to take the natural lead) to counter canter without becoming nervous or awkward with his feet. This horse probably isn't comfortable loping slowly on a small circle while maintaining impulsion and softness throughout his body.

Some riders demonstrate their ability to ride with feel particularly well at the counter canter. This is beautiful to see, whereas an accidental wrong lead isn't so fine. The counter canter or a disunited lead can crop up when a horse is positioned incorrectly for a canter depart or lead change. Make sure you've asked for the counter canter when it shows up.

Note: In an intentional counter canter, the horse's body is upright as the lead leg follows the bridge of the nose, which is tipped ever-so-slightly to the outside. In an accidental wrong lead, the horse's nose is tipped to the inside of the circle causing the inside shoulder to drop when the lead is picked up. They are very different, even though the footfall is the same.

Disunited Leads: When the Hind and Forequarters Lose Touch

A disunited lead, or crossfire, refers to a horse's ability to lope on both leads at once with the front legs on one lead and the hind legs on the other. A disunited lead is not influenced by the direction of travel, but occurs when the terrain or footing changes, when the rider loses his balance, or for a stride or two when a horse is learning to change leads. When a horse is disunited from right to left, he is traveling on the right lead with his front legs and on the left lead with his hind legs. When the horse is disunited from left to right, the opposite is true.

hrs10 3cDisunited lead, right to left, in a circle to the right.         
hrs10 3dDisunited lead, left to right, in a circle to the left.

Balance: When a Horse Lacks Balance, He'll Lack Confidence

Lack of feel, poor timing and rider imbalance can cause a horse to abandon his natural lead and travel out-of-whack just to keep from falling. Ironically, the first step he takes into a disunited lead may ensure his survival, but the second stride may cause him to crash. The diagonal balance point is absent in the middle of a disunited stride.

When the horse is disunited because his front feet changed leads first, he will either catch his hind legs up to match the new lead, or he'll restore his balance by getting his front legs in sync with the hind by going back to the old lead. The same is true for a hind-foot-first lead change. The front legs will either roll into the new lead, or if conditions prevent him from switching in front, he'll return his hind legs to their original lead. This is uncommon, but an athletic horse will get it done if there are no better options. When balance is finally restored by the secondary balance point, (the diagonal), the horse's confidence in his rider and his security at the lope are also restored.

Uniting the Leads: Restoring the Balance

It isn't a good idea to lope too many strides when the horse is disunited because a lot can go wrong. If the horse isn't able to unite the leads at the lope, the safest, simplest solution is to drop back to the trot and ask for the lope in the new lead once again. This is a simple lead change or drop-to-the-trot lead change.

To unite a horse in the new lead without dropping to a trot, the new lead has to be presented to the horse with precision and clarity that carries through to his feet. As you learn, through trial and error, to set it up and wait for him to re-establish his balance, he may get upset or frightened. You both might feel pretty frustrated before it all comes together. It's always all right to drop to a trot and start again. There's something to that quip about darkness before the dawn. Have a clear picture of which pair of legs (front or hind) need to make the adjustment so that your horse can maintain optimum balance until the transition onto the new lead, or return to the old lead, is complete.