There are several exercises that are good for teaching a horse to pick up a lead. To pick up a correct lead it is necessary to have control of certain parts of the horse and the horse must know how to respond to certain commands or cues. I want my horse to respond to the inside and outside reins. He must also know how to soften the shoulder; in other words, I need to be able to pick up his shoulder and move it out if he falls in with it. I do reverse arc bending exercises to soften the shoulders and suppling exercises to get the neck soft.
It is also necessary to have control of the hind quarters. I do control work with the hindquarters by doing turns on the forehand and lateral leg yields. I come down the length of the arena at the quarter line (eight to twelve feet in from the rail) and leg yield the horse over to the rail. The sideways movement is very subtle from the start of the arena in toward the rail at the end. Going right toward the rail, the horse must move off my left leg. The neck and shoulder are straight and the hind quarters are slightly to the inside. As the horse learns, I make it more difficult by making the distance shorter. I also teach the haunches in or two-tracking exercise as we go down the rail. Again, the neck and shoulder are straight and the hind quarters are more to the inside. The idea is that when I put a leg on the horse, the horse responds.
To begin the canter I establish nice forward movement at the trot. When the horse is responding to my aids, I start doing 20 meter circles. There are three cue spots on the side of a horse. Number one is at the cinch, number two is right behind the cinch and number three is by the rear cinch. Once the horse is moving forward at a relaxed trot and is slightly bent with the nose in, I put my outside leg back on the number three spot. Contact with the number three spot tells the hind quarters to move in. With my outside leg at number three, I pick up the inside rein. Contact with the inside rein keeps the shoulder from dropping or falling in. Sometimes when we put our outside leg on a horse, the shoulder will drop in. I press with my inside leg at the number one spot and I also press with my inside seat bone. Then I squeeze the horse into the bridle. This is a combination of my seat, thighs, and calf pushing the horse into the movement. I kiss or cluck to add additional energy.
I like to begin a canter from a trot because it is easier. Make sure your horse is relaxed at the trot. If his head is up in the air or he is pulling on you, or if he is stiff in your hands, he is not relaxed. The head does not need to be down low. It should be at the height of the withers or a little higher depending on the conformation of the horse and the natural head set.
If the horse leaps into the lead, he is on the forehand. He is pulling himself along instead of coming up under himself from behind. A simple exercise to deal with this problem is to stop the horse. Back him up and as he is backing, complete a turn on the haunches – what is called rolling over the hocks. This means you are reversing direction by having the horse turn on the hindquarters as he is backing up. Immediately drive the horse forward with energy. When the horse backs up and rolls over his hocks, he will shift his weight back. By driving the horse forward he will come under himself from the rear. That action will get the horse off his front end. You may need to do this several times to get the right effect.
You can see that there are several exercises that need to be done to be successful with leads. You can throw a horse into a canter but that is not what we want to do. When I am training a horse to pick up correct leads, I want it to look nice and be balanced. I’m going to have control of the nose, the shoulders, the rib cage and the hindquarters. I also want a soft neck.
Here are some tips for accomplishing this:
When picking up a lead, do not lean forward and look down. This puts more weight on the front end of the horse and pushes the horse away from you.
To strike off on a left lead, sit straight, simultaneous put your right leg on the number three spot, open your left thigh and press with your left leg at the number one spot, press with your left seat bone and kiss to encourage the horse.
If you are having difficulty or the horse does not want to pick up the lead, even after all the exercises you have practiced, come toward the rail at a 45-degree angle. At the rail turn down the rail and ask for the canter as you turn.
When I am working with young horses, I use the change of rein exercise. Trot a 20-meter circle going left, find center, make a nice bend through the center at a trot (forming a serpentine), pick up on the right rein as you start to go right and before you get back on the circle, ask for the right lead. You can put a cone or other item to mark the center.
Dropping your weight onto your right or left seat bone, depending on the lead you are taking, will help your horse pick up the correct lead. It is important that the horse knows and understands the cues and that you are clear with your aids. The key is clear communication.