Learn About Leads When You're Horseback Riding

Rio 2016 Olympic Games - Day 1 - Equestrian
A horse cantering on the left lead. Sportsfile via Getty Images / Getty Images

  Most horses walk, trot, canter or lope. A canter or lope is a three beat gait. A gallop is similar, but far more extended. But it's the same foot pattern. The footfall pattern when circling to the right should be left hind, right hind leg left fore and, almost at the same time, right foreleg. When circling right, the right legs will be reaching further forward. As these legs contact the ground they push the horse forward and there is a moment of suspension. This differs from the two-beat trot. The legs move in exactly the same footfall no matter how the horses starts out, or what direction they are turning. A rider, however, needs to pay attention to his or her diagonals while they ride the trot. A walk is a gait, smooth and balanced for both horse and rider. Not so with the canter or lope. A horse may start out cantering with either the right or left legs front legs. It will automatically choose a leg depending on what side it favors, or which direction it is veering in. Because a horse that is in balance is a safer ride, the rider can cue the horse to pick up the right or left lead.

This can be very confusing to new riders.

How Leads Work?

On a right lead, the right foreleg reaches further forward than the left. This is called a 'right lead'. The left lead is a mirror to the right lead. On a left circle, the left legs will reach forward further. The lead is easiest to see by watching the forelegs. What’s happening with the back legs? The back leg on the same side as the leading front leg reaches further forward. So on the right lead, the horse’s right foreleg and right hind leg reach further forward than the left front and right rear. The opposite is true for the left lead.

It is desirable to have the horse on the correct lead for the circle as this helps with balance. A horse is less likely to trip, and if it does, it will be easier to catch itself. That makes for a safer ride. It’s also faster to be on the correct lead, which is useful in speed games like barrel racing. Riding a circle on the wrong lead intentionally is called a 'counter canter'. This is something you might be asked to do in the show ring, to test the obedience of your horse.

Ideally, you will be able to feel what lead your horse is on without looking. But as you start learning, you can peak down at your horse’s shoulders to see which one is extended further forward. This will tell you which lead it is on. You will also learn to cue your horse for the right or left lead. Some horses will naturally, or through training pick up the correct lead while riding. But often you will have to tell the horse which lead it needs to be on. Here is how to cue your horse for a canter, and the correct lead.

Pronunciation: l ee d

Examples: The horse lost its balance and stumbled in the barrel race because it was on the wrong lead.